DatesMay 25 thru June 5
You can’t talk about Avenue Q without talking about Sesame Street because they’re both talking about the same things – albeit on different ends of the educational continuum. Big Bird, Grover and the gang were created to help teach kids the things they needed to get ready for pre-school. Avenue Q picks up right after college, teaching the things they need to get ready for life. Both use humans and puppets in an urban environment confronting mysteries big and small with frank discussion.
But while Grover conquered the complexities of “here” and “there,” in Avenue Q, “here” and “there” more likely refers puppet karma sutra. Yep, as the advertisements warn: there’s full puppet nudity. It’s shocking, but the shock is part of the point.
Much of Avenue Q’s humor falls into the same category as Seinfeld’s comedy of recognition – the horrors of adulthood produce howls. It is an exorcism of sorts. Platitudes are eschewed for hard knocks served up by the same kind of puppets in the same kind of way. What is bizarre is to have them come into the safe room of your childhood and forcibly put away those childish things. These puppets look familiar and sound familiar, but they aren’t the furry friends of yesteryear. Frankly, they’re more fun. This show says it’s time to grow up and get on with life because you’re not going to be here forever. It’s a good thing they’re funny while they’re saying it.
The familiar formula of Sesame Street mixed with adult subjects isn’t enough to beat Wicked for the Tony for Best Musical, though. It takes a story. In this case, it is a standard boy meets girl love story – or more specifically, boy puppet meets girl monster puppet kind of love story dipped in after school special sauce. Princeton is fresh from college full of youthful potential. He lands on Avenue Q because the rents were two high on Avenues A through P, and he’s worked his way all the way out here. The characters living on this fringe of urbanity clue us into the impending end of his innocence. As if to embody the message of the show, one of the characters is a former child celebrity. What better medium could there be to convey that adulthood comes whether you’re ready or not. This show talks to us like kids, reminding us that we’re not.
The actors walk around holding the puppets, though there are a couple human characters such as the unemployed comic and his immigrant wife. The puppet voices are doubled in several cases. Jacqueline Grabois turns in an impressive performance voicing the ingénue Kate Monster, Princeton’s love interest, and a puppet named Lucy, The Slut (you can imagine the vocal gymnastics involved, especially in the scenes they have together). This involves Ms. Grabois manipulating her puppet, speaking for it, and speaking for a puppet that someone else is manipulating. Brent Michael DiRoma shines as well as the voices of both Princeton and Rod, but he also stands out as the best puppeteer of the ensemble, getting laughs from his puppetry alone at times. The cast is strong overall, and despite some deficiencies in either their microphones or diction, they make the music enjoyable, even while maintaining a distinctly puppet-like voice. I suppose it should come as no surprise. Jim Henson’s performance of “Rainbow Connection” was a top 40 hit, after all.
Sesame Street used the medium of television in a new way—to form young minds. It practically invented the idea of educational television. The puppets were what made it work. They grab a kid’s attention long enough to teach simple, yet valuable lessons. It’s interesting that our culture requires puppets to engage Avenue Q‘s subjects. At times this approach seems to be treating the audience like the victim of some childhood trauma being treated with therapy puppets. Are we in so much denial that we need the safe distance the Styrofoam face affords? If so, the matter of the piece overwhelms the manner quickly, and pretty soon it’s not pretty, though pretty funny.
Avenue Q is a polished ride through a rough part of town. It is thrilling if you are comfortable in that territory. A few of last night’s audience was not, but for most, they’re singing the songs today, to themselves, quietly.
Photo: Kerri Brackin, Nicky, Rod, Brent Michael DiRoma (© John Daughtry 2009)