Book by Jeff Whitty, based on an original concept by Robert Lopez and
Music and lyrics by Robert Lopez and Jeff Marx
Directed by Jason Moore; choreography by Ken Roberson
Puppets conceived and designed by Rick Lyon
With Jennifer Barnhart, Natalie Venetia Belcon, Stephanie
D'Abruzzo, Jordan Gelber, Ann Harada, Rick Lyon, John Tartaglia
At the Golden Theatre, New York City
Avenue Q may well be the perfect musical for the late
Baby Boomers and Gen X'ers who grew up with "Sesame Street,"
"The Muppet Show" and all the other variants of
Hensoniana on television and film. It's funny, fresh and lively,
even if much of its considerable humor comes from the "shock"
of hearing puppets use R-rated language and seeing them in
er, compromising positions (the show's clever marketing warns
that Avenue Q features "full puppet nudity," but
I can't recall Cookie Monster, Elmo or Big Bird wearing clothes
either-do fur and feathers count?).
One of the things that makes Avenue Q so enjoyable is that
its creators are smart enough not to take themselves, or the
show, too seriously. And it is fun to see the teaching techniques
pioneered by educational television (cartoons, songs, dances
and puppets) used to illustrate such complex concepts as adult
relationships, the joys of schadenfreude, the agony of being
in the closet and the prickly awkwardness of coming out.
The show follows new college graduate Princeton as he moves
into an apartment on Avenue Q, in an outer-borough neighborhood
that aspires to be downscale. His neighbors include Kate Monster,
a lovelorn kindergarten teacher's aide; Trekkie Monster (no
relation, as Kate huffily points out), who spends his days
surfing the Web for porn; unemployed comic Brian (Jordan Gelber)
and his fiancée Christmas Eve (Ann Harada), a therapist
with no patients; uptight, closeted Rod and the unspoken object
of his affections, Nicky; and the building's super, Gary Coleman.
Yes, that Gary Coleman, though thankfully played by a full-voiced
woman (Natalie Venetia Belcon), and with no reference to his
recent run for California's governorship.
Princeton, Kate, Trekkie and the other Puppeted-Americans
in the cast have people saying their lines and carrying them
from place to place, which is helpful in that their legs are
either invisible or not very functional. In actuality, you
rather quickly get used to having both puppets and puppeteers
in full view, and it's a tribute to the vocal, acting and
puppeting skills of the talented cast (and director Jason
Moore) that the action and characters are always clear and
easy to follow. That may sound like faint praise, but each
puppeteer plays at least two characters; without the tight
ensemble work, confusion could run rampant.
Stephanie D'Abruzzo, one of several "Sesame Street"
veterans in the mostly new-to-Broadway cast, plays both Kate
Monster and her rival for Princeton's affections, the appropriately
named Lucy T. Slut-which is a bit like playing both noble
wife Norma Shearer and scheming slut Joan Crawford in The
Women. Rick Lyon, who also designed the puppets, plays Nicky,
Trekkie Monster and one of the two Bad Idea Bears-inspired
creations who are like the devil on your shoulder, suggesting
everything from wasting money to binge drinking and suicide,
but in the happy-happy tones of helium-sniffing Smurfs.
John Tartaglia is excellent as both Princeton and "closeted
homowhatever" Rod, whose paean to his conveniently absent
Canadian girlfriend (her name is Alberta, she lives in Vancouver)
is a first-act highlight.
Among the characters whose feet actually touch the stage,
Harada's Japanese-born therapist Christmas Eve (again, like
the Gary Coleman thing, probably better not to ask) makes
the strongest impression. She's blunt, bossy and tells the
truth about relationships-that the more you love someone,
the more you want to kill them. No wonder her patients rarely
come back for a second session.
While Avenue Q may occasionally go for the cheap shot and
the easy laugh, it can also be unexpectedly touching, especially
in the Princeton-Kate romance. Perhaps it's a tribute to the
audience's powers of empathy or maybe it's just a severe case
of anthropomorphism, but I actually cared whether those two
felt-and-foam constructions found their way to a quasi-happy
ending. And the Rod-Nicky relationship provides a plausible
explanation for the Bert-Ernie dynamic it's based on (thanks
to my sharp friend Peggy for this insight). It answers the
question of why uptight Bert/Rod stays with messy, childlike
Ernie/Nicky-and why Bert is always so cranky. Of course! He's
a closeted gay man/puppet who can't deal with his attraction
to his roommate. That would make anybody crabby. Avenue Q,
on the other hand, will probably make anyone who sees it turn
that frown upside down.