Avenue Q

Review by Adam Blair

Book by Jeff Whitty, based on an original concept by Robert Lopez and Jeff Marx
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.

Film | Theater | Books  | Home Entertainment | Feature Article | Contact
Grin without a Cat (adamblairviews.com) is wholly owned by Adam Blair
All content Copyright 2004 Adam Blair. All Rights Reserved.
Site Design: C2K Multimedia