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Raunchy Musical A Holiday Hit for Theater

by Matthew S. Bajko

Nicky (Brendon North) is one of the zany but lovably furry characters living on Avenue Q in the production of the same name.
Nicky (Brendon North) is one of the zany but lovably furry characters living on Avenue Q in the production of the same name.  (Source:Lois Tema)

A musical with swearing puppets, two of which have sex on stage while a female actor portraying the late television star Gary Coleman sings it's OK for them to be loud while making love, wouldn't seem to be a fit for the holiday season, when many people treat themselves and their loved ones to theater tickets.

Yet "Avenue Q," the 2004 triple Tony Award-winner for best musical, score, and book, has proved to be a smash hit for San Francisco's New Conservatory Theatre Center. This December marks the fifth year in a row the nonprofit LGBT theater company has mounted the show, which does feature a human character named Christmas Eve, a Japanese immigrant who is a therapist in need of clients.

"We had no expectation that it would be as good a fit as it turned out to be," Barbara Hodgen, New Conservatory's executive director, told the Bay Area Reporter during an interview in early November in the theater's Mason's Bar.

The 36-year-old theater company has historically presented musicals at the end of the year, such as "Xanadu: The Musical" in 2011 and "Dames At Sea" in 2009. They tend to leave the audience feeling cheerful, fitting for the yuletide season.

"It is a good time to do a musical because people are feeling festive," explained Hodgen.

But its prior musical productions didn't generate the same demand for tickets as "Avenue Q" has over the last four years. The initial five-week run in 2013 sold out and was extended for two weeks.

Based on that success, the theater took a chance on bringing it back a second time the next year. It was a smart decision, as the five shows a week over five weeks all sold out. The run was again extended two more weeks.

"Those sell-outs happened earlier in the second year," recalled Hodgen. "We thought three time's a charm, let's see what happens in year three. We had the same strength in ticket sales and extended it from five weeks to seven weeks. It kept surprising us."


Repeat Customers, New Patrons

In talking to ticketholders, the theater learned many were repeat buyers. "Avenue Q" had turned into its holiday tradition, similar to other seasonal offerings like the "Nutcracker" ballet or the play "A Christmas Carol."

"I am a fan of theater in general, but this is one of my favorite shows. I love that it's got such good comedy writing and songs in it," said Livermore resident Lea Blevins, who bought tickets to see "Avenue Q" with friends in January for a fourth time at New Conservatory. "Also, it's got a lot of heart to it as well. I almost cry from laughing and cry from being touched at the same time."

Blevins, who is straight, has seen one other production at New Conservatory over the years. The last two years she has brought along friends who had never seen "Avenue Q" with her to the show.

"It is kind of funny this has become a holiday show because the show itself doesn't have any holiday themes in it, except one of the characters is named Christmas Eve, if that counts," said Blevins.

For returning cast member Brendon North, a gay man who lives in San Francisco and plays several roles in the show, its appeal for many audience members is the fact that it's counterprogramming from the other routine holiday productions people have seen countless times.

"I think people love it because it is a breath of fresh air," said North, whose day job is handling operations for a local technology company. "I love the 'Nutcracker' and 'A Christmas Carol' as much as the next person, but at a certain point you are looking for something different in your Christmas season. People are looking for a change. You feel that every night in the response you get back from the audience. It is a good party."

The show's focus on struggling to make it as an adult, from making ends meet, maintaining a home, falling in love, or coming out as gay, are universal themes, noted North. While the show is well known for its raunchier material, North said the heart at its center surprises many people seeing it for the first time.

"If people are looking for something different, absolutely they will find it with us," he said. "While it is definitely a good, fun party, it is also a show that makes you think, makes you feel, and leaves you humming a tune. And at the holidays isn't that what we are looking for, a good time with our friends?"

Blevins, who tells those seeing "Avenue Q" for the first time that it is an "R-rated Sesame Street," believes the potty-mouthed puppets do share a message that translates to the Christmas season.

"If you want to relate it to being a good holiday show, it does have this warm friendship overarching theme. They are all there for each other and come together," said Blevins. "I am not sure there is a specific song that jumps out at me as being a future Christmas carol or anything."

It also strikes a chord for those who may struggle at being alone or away from family during the holidays, she surmised, by providing a fun, uplifting distraction.

"The holidays aren't so great for a lot of people, to be honest," said Blevins. "This is a show about people who go through some challenges too."

Last year, the theater double cast the show and added Tuesday night performances, bringing the total number of shows per week to six. Demand for tickets remained strong, leading to another two-week extension of the run.

The theater is using the same schedule this year and expects to announce on opening night, this Friday, December 1, if the run will again be extended. It is currently set to close January 7.

Ticket sales from "Avenue Q" is expected to generate about 39 percent of New Conservatory's ticket income goal for this season. According to its 2016 tax filings, the theater, with a total budget of more than $1 million, reported box office revenue of $420,092 in 2015.

The success of the "Avenue Q" productions in years past have helped to fund the more LGBT-specific plays New Conservatory mounts each season that may not attract as strong of an audience.

"We love 'Avenue Q' for itself, but because it is a popular show it does prime the pump," said Hodgen. "Last year we did three world premieres and this year we are doing two world premieres. They are all good shows but not as briskly selling of a show. 'Avenue Q' in many ways does drive that engine."

It also helps draw in newcomers to the theater, located in a belowground space at 25 Van Ness near San Francisco's Civic Center, and provides an opportunity to promote the other works in the season.

"It is a good entry point for people not familiar with our work," noted Hodgen. "We are a small theater in a basement; if this gets people in and saying, 'I saw a good show and had a good time,' then that is always helpful."

No decision has been made on if New Conservatory will bring "Avenue Q" back for a sixth year in 2018. But if this year's production proves to be as popular as previous ones, it is likely the tradition will continue.

"I can't make any guarantees one way or another," said Hodgen, "but I wouldn't be surprised to see it come back next year."


To purchase tickets, visit the theater's website at https://nctcsf.org/

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