The Boston area has an eclectic collection of small theaters where energetic troupes produce shows on vintage stages. Jamaica Plain’s Footlight Club, Riverside Theater Works in Hyde Park, and Arlington Friends of the Drama are but a few of the venues where emerging talent and seasoned hoofers offer engaging theater at a fraction of the price downtown shows command. On Halloween night I ventured beyond Route 128 to see the Vokes Players Production of Avenue Q. The few extra miles along Route 20 were worth the effort.
Beatrice Herford was an Anglican minister’s daughter turned vaudeville comedic monologist and dowager wife of the well-to-do Wayland gentleman, Sidney Hayward. In 1904 she built a theater to entertain her friends, complete with balcony, side boxes, and a carved proscenium. By the 1930’s the 90 seat Vokes Theater, named after an English comedienne Mrs. Hayward admired, was wilting. Beatrice ceded it to a local group who, with occasional interruptions, has performed there ever since. They’ve made improvements, like adding heat and restrooms and a back stage, but the place retains the Depression era gumption of Judy Garland and Mickey Rooney ‘putting on a show’.
The lobby of the Vokes Theater’s wood frame Victorian structure has that distinct scent I associate with Cape Cod spring – a bit musty yet ripe with promise. Our third row center seats were perfect – in the double height space with the graceful balcony arcing behind, the whimsical boxes on the sides, and the fanciful proscenium filling our full width of vision.
I never saw Avenue Q on Broadway (Tony Award for Best Musical, 2003) where it played in the 800-seat John Golden Theater. Boston Lyric Stage’s excellent 2012 production adapted the show’s scale to its smaller space, but turns out that, just like toddlers like to watch their Sesame Street up close to the tube, Avenue Q improves with proximity. What the Vokes production lacks in the Lyric’s polish, it makes up for in intimacy. From twenty feet away, the actors and puppets portrayed the alternating humor and pathos that is the core of Avenue Q with both levity and conviction.
The cast is uniformly good; three are worth special mention. Nick LaPete as Nicky and Trekkie Monster is outstanding; his facial expressions and vocal tricks match his puppets with uncanny precision. If Gary Coleman could sing half as well as Lovely Hoffman, who cross-dresses to play the former child star, he might not have been so broke when he died. Christine Verzosa, as the Japanese social worker Christmas Eve, has impeccable timing. Her lisping, ‘evelyone a little bit lascist’ brought down the house.
When Beatrice Herford died in 1952, the Vokes Players hung an oil portrait of a stately dame with a giant boa at the end of the theater’s main corridor. She looks like Ethel Barrymore channeling Brenda Braxton in Smokey Joe’s Cafe. Which pretty much sums up my initial impression of the Vokes Players. Avenue Q seems an appropriately quirky play for this delightful little theater, and it’s easy to see how this winter’s Harvey could be a great fit as well. Harder to imagine how they will tackle their spring production, the Palm Springs family squabbles of Other Desert Cities, beneath the putty garlands above the proscenium that Beatrice reportedly gilded herself. I may just have to motor out west again to find out if the Vokes Players can bring the desert to Wayland as effectively as they bring Brooklyn.
Avenue Q plays at the Vokes Theater through November 15, 2014.