Gary Coleman shot to television stardom in the role of Arnold Jackson on “Different Strokes” (1978-1986) but plummeted to bankruptcy and struggled with a variety of health and personal problems as an adult.
The 2004 Tony Award-winning musical “Avenue Q” included the famous black actor as a character seeking both belonging and dignity as a grown-up. Fittingly Davron Monroe, who plays Coleman in the professional area premiere of “Avenue Q” at the Lyric Stage Company of Boston, has found such belonging with his fellow cast members.
Monroe recently spoke to the Banner about Coleman, the distinctive show, the importance of neighborhood and his multi-faceted career.
Monroe did not see himself as a Coleman expert, but he said he did some research on his character “just to find out some of the things he Coleman went through.”
The veteran actor learned how Gary’s family and business advisor had squandered his wealth. Suffering from kidney disease and struggling with marital difficulties, Coleman later quickly went through the money gained from a suit against them. “The only thing he wishes for now as a resident of the show’s Avenue Q is self-respect.,” Monroe says. “He just wants to live his life as Gary Coleman the man and not Gary Coleman the child star.”
That self-respect is intricately tied to neighborhood values in “Avenue Q.” For example, Coleman and diverse puppets -- straight Nicky and his gay roommate Rod, college graduate puppet Princeton and his teacher girlfriend Kate Monster -- celebrate the wedding of Jewish groom Brian and Asian-American bride Christmas Eve under a chupah (Jewish canopy).
All try to help each other deal with such matters as unemployment, friendship and relationships. “Everyone is there for everyone else,” Monroe observed. “The musical shows a cohesive idea of what a neighborhood can be.”
The East Boston actor hails from Jacksonville, Florida and holds a bachelor’s degree in vocal performance and pedagogy from the University of North Florida and a master’s degree in opera from the Longy School of Music.
Monroe said he has connected with his fellow actors. “I’ve completely enjoyed working on ‘Avenue Q,’ he said. “We’re completely a family. Lunch is had. Dinner is had. We’re almost like brothers and sisters. We’ve really bonded.”
At the same time, he said he has relished the opportunity to be a kind of role model to some budding African American performers. “I want to be clear that I’m open to helping everyone,” he said. “It is easier, though, to reach African American children when they see someone who looks like them.”
Monroe mentors particularly as a voice teacher at his private studio. “My youngest student is nine and my oldest student is 57,he said. His repertoire is wide-ranging “anywhere from opera and jazz to gospel and rock.”
Call “Avenue Q” a blend of the neighborhood spirit of “Rent” and the inspired puppetry of a “Sesame Street.” Artistic director Spiro Veloudos brings welcome intimacy to the musical by presenting it on a thrust stage rather than a conventional proscenium. At one point, cast members actually ask for donations from theatergoers to benefit the actual Theater Community Benevolent Fund. Some people hand them donations, while others contribute to the TCBF as they exit after the show.
Audience members feel as though they live on Avenue Q along with the puppets and their human counterparts. The four puppeteers in the seven-actor cast – John Ambrosino, Elise Arsenault, Erica Speyres and Phil Taylor – are equally adept at evoking the moods and feelings of such vivid characters as Bert-and-Ernie-like Nicky and Rod and Princeton and his girlfriend Kate Monster. Highlights in the disarmingly perceptive score are “Schadenfreude”-- about the delight some people take in other people’s misfortunes -- and “There’s a Fine, Fine Line” that speaks to the exciting challenge that is life.
The same goes for the actors playing humans. Harry McEnerny has the frustration of unemployed Brian as well as his geniality. Jenna Lee Scott finds the tough candor and the insight of Christmas Eve. Davron S. Monroe captures the simple dignity of Gary Coleman, who means to live unobtrusively as a regular neighbor and not as a celebrity former child star. Ultimately, “Avenue Q” celebrates the inner worth of its puppets and humans alike.
To paraphrase the title of a second act number, there is life outside your home. For now, an important part of any adult theatergoer's life should be the Lyric Stage’s soaring edition of “Avenue Q.”
Avenue Q, Lyric Stage Company of Boston, 140 Clarendon Street,Boston, through July 1. 617-585-5678 or lyricstage.com.