Avenue Q’s Carla Renata

theat_aveq-renata.jpg"Gary Coleman is very easy to make fun of, but it’s a fine line. If you cross that line, it will annoy the audience, and that makes my job really hard."







The Fabulous Fox Theatre, St. Louis
Through February 24, 2008

The Broadway smash musical comedy Avenue Q brings its nutty denizens to the Fabulous Fox Theatre through Feb. 24. Avenue Q tells the story of Princeton, a NYC-bound college grad with a head full of dreams and pockets full of lint. He finds a cheap apartment out on Avenue Q, where he looks for the purpose of life with the help of some very interesting people and even more interesting puppets. I was able to speak with native St. Louisan and Ritenour Senior High School graduate Carla Renata, who plays "Gary Coleman" in the show. Yes, that Gary Coleman. Even though Renata has been seen on Broadway and in television shows such as CSI, Will and Grace, and My Name Is Earl, she explains why Avenue Q is a particularly challenging and delightful experience.


So, how does one approach playing Gary Coleman?

The fact that I’m a girl is actually making fun of Gary Coleman a little bit. The way the producers explained it to me was that the whole show is basically an homage to shows like Sesame Street and The Muppet Show. The writers of the show were huge fans of the Muppets growing up, and so they created a musical in that same vein. If you remember, there was always a special guest star on each episode, right? So, for the purposes of Avenue Q, the character of Gary Coleman is supposed to be the special guest star. So there are lines and lyrics that refer to Gary Coleman’s work, and people in the United States who watched Diff’rent Strokes totally get it. As an actor, it’s a real fine line between doing a character rooted in reality and parody. Gary Coleman is very easy to make fun of, but it’s a fine line. If you cross that line, it will annoy the audience, and that makes my job really hard. I’ve got to be on it and present, and I cannot phone it in.

Growing up in and around the St. Louis area, did you have anyone that you credit with inspiring you to pursue your theatre career?

My mother and father were born and raised in St. Louis. My mother in particular was very helpful in fostering my interest in entertainment. My mom would take me to Six Flags all the time, and I had no interest in going on the rides; they kind of scared me. So I would just sit in the Palace Theatre and just watch the shows all day long. My mother encouraged me to go audition for the shows, and I eventually ended up working there.

Have your parents seen the show?

Yes, my mom and dad have both seen it, and they both loved it. My father isn’t an avid theatergoer, like he doesn’t care about Broadway or shows or anything; but the fact that he liked it was a huge deal for me.

I know Avenue Q isn’t for kids. Have you seen any parents bring their kids to the show and think, "Uh oh"?

People bring their kids to Avenue Q all the time, and I don’t know what they’re thinking. [Laughs.] I think they see puppets on the posters and the TV ads, and they see the warnings that it’s not kid-friendly, and they just ignore it and bring their kids. Plus, they always sit in the first and second row of the theater. Sometimes you’ll see the kids sitting there going, "Why am I here?" Some of the kids like it because they know they’re seeing or hearing things they’re not supposed to be seeing or hearing. Meanwhile, the parents are trying to cover up their eyes and their ears. The funny thing is, the parents that come with the children never leave the show. They’re there from beginning to end, because they’re optimistic that the show will be toned down at a certain point, and that never really happens.

How much were Avenue Q creators Jeff Marx and Robert Lopez involved with this touring company?

I’ve done a lot of tours and been on Broadway several times, but this is the first time that I had done a show where the creative staff wasn’t as present as they normally are. Usually when you do a first national tour, you have the opportunity to work with the same creative team that put it up on Broadway. By the time the national tour of Avenue Q rolled around, the director and Jeff and Robert Lopez were caught up in the new project they were working on, so they couldn’t be around a whole lot. They did give us some notes, and were very supportive, but we didn’t see them a great deal.

I’m a big fan of the group Queen, and I noticed you were in We Will Rock You. What was that experience like?

Oh man, that was great because growing up in St. Louis, they played Queen on the radio all the time. I auditioned for Robert DeNiro, so it was pretty wild. He produced the show in London and Las Vegas.

Really? I had no idea he was involved with that show.

I know; it’s funny, right? He’s a big musical fan, especially rock musicals. He and Queen collaborated on that show. He was also one of the producers on the film version of Rent. But yeah, I was in the Las Vegas Company of We Will Rock You and I replaced the actress who originated the role of "Killer Queen" in London.

What projects do you have waiting for you when Avenue Q is finished?

Nothing in the pipeline right now, because of the writer’s strike. However, there are a few pilot projects floating around that were completed before the writer’s strike, so I have some auditions coming up. I’m also doing a workshop for a new musical called Ray Charles: Live at the Pasadena Playhouse. It’s slated to open on Broadway in the fall, and I’m hoping for a part in the show, so we’ll wait and see. My part in it is really great, and the premise of the show is that Ray Charles has passed on, but he comes back to have one more recording session with all of these people from his life. It was really good, and a lot of fun. I’m hoping when they take it to New York that I’ll be with them!

You’ve done so many things; what has been the highlight so far?

I’ve had quite a few highlights. One of them was when I was in The Who’s Tommy and I got to hang out with Pete Townsend. It was stupid; it was like, I’m hanging out with Pete Townsend, and Pete Townsend is partying with my dad! I mean, it was crazy. On my very first show on Broadway, which was a revival of How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying, I met Matthew Broderick, Sarah Jessica Parker, John Stamos, and Megan Mullaly, before she was on Will and Grace. Matthew is just the most wonderfully smart and generous actor I have ever worked with. It was just a thrill. My Broadway career is not over, but the parts I’ve experienced already have been marvelous. I remember meeting Gregory Hines, and I remember him standing at the side of the stage saying congratulations to every single member of the show as they came offstage. Alec Baldwin did the same thing. Those kinds of memories, you can’t make that stuff up. | Jim Ousley

Read Amy Burger’s review of Avenue Q

Avenue Q continues at the Fox Theatre through February 24. Tickets range from $22–60. For more information, visit the Fox Theatre online, http://www.metrotix.com/, or call 314-534-1111.

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