Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Reel Thoughts Interview: Take a Trip Down Avenue Q

It’s been a long road to Avenue Q. The wildly hilarious musical that proudly features puppet nudity, and which beat out Wicked to win the 2004 Tony Award, bypassed the Southwest in favor of an exclusive booking at Las Vegas' then-new Wynn Casino. Sadly, Vegas didn’t take kindly to a show that lovingly sends up Sesame Street while imparting some of the smartest satire of any Broadway musical in years.  The Sin City Avenue Q closed to make room for Monty Python’s Spamalot (which also closed fairly quickly). Fast forward half a decade later, and ASU Gammage will finally play host to the musical that teaches us that “Everyone’s a Little Bit Racist”, “The Internet Is For Porn” and that “You Can Be Loud As The Hell You Want When You’re Making Love.”

Set on a decidedly downscale street far from Manhattan’s trendier Avenues A, B and C, Avenue Q is home to a lovable bunch of people and puppets who are all struggling with what to do with their lives. Brian is an unemployed comic, while his wife Christmas Eve is a therapist in need of patients. Kate Monster is a fuzzy girl with a big heart but no boyfriend, who wants to open a school for monster children. Residing upstairs is Trekkie Monster, a big scary-looking guy who lives for the aforementioned internet porn. Rod and Nicky are suspiciously like Bert and Ernie, if Bert was an uptight Republican whom everyone assumes is gay and Ernie was a sloppy slacker. Then there’s the building super — that can’t be TV’s Gary Coleman, star of Diff’rent Strokes, can it? While most everyone on Avenue Q thinks “It Sucks To Be Me,” it definitely won’t suck to be you if you get your tickets now. You will laugh your puppet or human head off.

I spoke with Tim Kornblum, who plays the long-suffering Brian, a terrible stand-up comedian with a demanding wife. In real life, Kornblum is an out gay man who’s excited to have landed his first professional gig, never mind it being on a national tour of a hot Broadway show. He started in September and didn’t find it strange at all to interact with the talented puppeteers who act in full view of the audience. “He’s got the brain of a seven year old kid,” Kornblum laughed. “He’s always fascinated by just the most banal things. But he’s got a great relationship with his wife.”

Kornblum is a lifelong New Jersey native, so he’s loving seeing the whole country on tour. It makes it challenging that his boyfriend Kyle is in school in Philadelphia as a dance major, but the couple makes it work.

Kornblum was in high school when he first saw Avenue Q, and he instantly fell in love and wanted to be part of it. He had to convince his family about his choice of professions, but getting the job clinched that. “For the most part, the audiences are phenomenal, but we definitely go to some of those more conservative towns where they aren’t so keen on the show. But then it’s our job to open them up and convince them that we’re not actually bad people up on the stage,” he laughed. He explains that Christmas Eve and Brian get along so well, because he needs someone to take care of and she, without any patients, needs someone to take care of. “They’re perfect for each other,” he quipped. “Their relationship has grown and changed since we started.”

“There is a character who’s a closeted homosexual, and the entire show charts his journey, so for anyone who’s experiencing it themselves or knows someone who’s going through that, Avenue Q is a more comedic way to look at a very serious issue,” Kornblum explained. “I think it makes certain things easier to take. Personally, as soon as I saw the show, I bought the poster of Rod that says, “I am not a closeted homo. Whatever.” The whole show is based on love, and that’s something that a lot of relationships these days are lacking.”

He also revealed what replaced the lyric “George Bush!” in the rousing final number, “Only For Now”. At first, it was “Swine Flu”, he explained, “until people started dying.” Then, for a while, it was “Fox News!” Now, the ultimate and most hated thing that the audience is reassured is “only for now” is … “Glenn Beck!” Now, that’s a hopeful message!

Neil also had a chance to speak with one of Tim's co-stars:

There’s something about Rod. Avenue Q’s resident fussy Republican is definitely keeping something secret and he just won’t come out … and say what it is. As his roommate Nicky sings to him, “If you were gay, that’d be okay,” but Rod is not receptive, to say the least. I gently tried to coax more information from the purse-lipped puppet, but even Rod’s portrayer, Brent Michael DiRoma, couldn’t get much more out of him.

NC: Where are you from? Do you have any brothers or sisters? What was your family like? Conservative? Liberal?
Rod: I am a proud Floridian. I'm an only child. My family is full of strict Republicans and we're very conservative.

NC: So, what’s the best and worst thing about living on Avenue Q?
Rod: I'd have to say the best thing about living on Avenue Q is that we all feel free to burst into song whenever normal conversation doesn't quite do the job. My not so favorite thing on Avenue Q is the constant amount of rats.

NC: Where would you move if you could?
Rod: Oh, I don't think I could ever move away from Avenue Q, but if I had to choose one place, it would be Japan. I love the culture and I'm currently learning to speak the language!

NC: Tell me something about your friends or roommate that people would never guess.
Rod: Believe it or not, Nicky my roommate has a severe crush on Hannah Montana. I caught him singing along while I was playing "Party in the USA"!

NC: What is something that would surprise people about you?
Rod: Uhm, I don't think anything about me would surprise anyone. Nope ...

Avenue Q opens tonight at ASU Gammage in Tempe and continues through March 14.  For future dates and locations of Avenue Q, visit the national tour's official website.

Interviews by Neil Cohen, resident film critic of Movie Dearest and Phoenix's Echo Magazine.

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