I haven’t laughed so much at a bunch of puppets since the heyday of “The Muppet Show.”
Not that anyone will mistake these 20-something characters for Kermit. They drink Long Island Iced Teas and tend to hook up.
Yet this Tony-winning touring show brashly takes the “Sesame Street” concept and transforms it into a lovable, rude and surprisingly sweet story of what happens when all of those kids weaned on “Sesame Street” graduate from college 20 years later.
So, imagine “Avenue Q” as a slightly seedy New York neighborhood of the sort a 22-year-old English grad might be able to afford. It’s populated by a lovable crew of puppet “people” and puppet “monsters,” including one anti-social lout called the Trekkie Monster – just like the Cookie Monster, except instead of shouting “cookie,” he shouts “porn!”
It’s an inspired idea, grabbing a generation right by their fondest childhood memories. The amazing thing is how well writer Jeff Whitty and songwriters Robert Lopez and Jeff Marx pull it off.
There are so many ways the tone could have gone wrong: too sarcastic, too dirty, too clean, too glib, too smug, too sappy or not sappy enough.
What we get is a pitch-perfect tone combining elements of smart, sincere, good-natured and – just so we never forget we’re talking about 20-somethings – happily transgressive. For instance, one song is titled “Everyone’s A Little Bit Racist,” which pokes fun at racial stereotyping and knee-jerk political correctness.
“Avenue Q” borrows many of the conventions familiar from “Sesame Street.” Every so often screens descend from the rafters, showing little animated “lessons” in concepts like “commitment” and “purpose.”
Then there are the “Bad Idea Bears,” two pastel-colored Care Bear types, who perfectly symbolize the show’s sensibilities. Whenever the main characters, Princeton or Kate, resolve to do the responsible thing (not drink too much, for instance) the Bad Idea Bears show up and enthusiastically shout things like, “Try a Long Island Iced Tea! And make it a large!”
All of this is accomplished with an excellent young cast, skilled in playing their characters and operating their handheld puppets at the same time. A few characters are strictly human, but the main characters are puppets, operated by their actors in full view.
The audience can watch either the puppet or the actor. I found my eyes drawn toward the puppets, with their extra-expressive body language.
Brent Michael DiRoma was endearing as Princeton, the naïve college grad. I was also impressed on opening night with Ashley Eileen Bucknam, an understudy who that night took over the roles of Kate Monster and Lucy. It’s hard to imagine a more lovable Kate.
Visually, the show is a kick. An elaborate street scene fills the stage. There are some great sight gags, including a giant puppet peering over the roofline.
With storylines about homosexuality, poverty and the artistic life, this show covers the same big issues as “Rent,” that other big Broadway show about 20-somethings in New York. But it does it with more humor and less bombast.
Meanwhile, just like on PBS children’s shows, everybody on “Avenue Q” learns heartwarming life lessons. Kate learns about finding a purpose in life, Princeton learns about commitment, and together they learn the importance of following your dreams.
As life lessons go, those are the tried-and-true classics. And here’s all you need to know about “Avenue Q’s” heart: Those lessons are delivered without cynicism.
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