By Jeff Walsh
I'll admit up front that I was hesitant seeing "Avenue Q," primarily because the people who talked it up got really excited when The Muppet Show was released on DVD. They reeked of bias. Not that I'm anti-puppet, necessarily. It was always an issue of "but there are all these other shows to see with, like, people in them." My fears ended up being misguided.
"Avenue Q" admittedly doesn't take itself seriously, but it's not self-referential or a send-up of a Broadway musical done with puppets, either. The show stands on its own. The songs are all fun, well-written, and memorable. The strangest thing to process was the puppeteers performing onstage with their puppets on one hand and wands to move the puppet's arms in the other. The natural inclination was to look at the puppeteers, despite them being clad in neutral tones and delivering their performances through their puppets. They often had the same expressions as their puppets, and were fully invested in the role so they were singing fully and passionately (it wasn't ventriloquism). But after a while, you'd realize that the scene, songs, and sightlines were all happening between the puppets and the human actors playing other roles onstage, so you eventually shifted your focus.
The show starts with Princeton (performed by Howie Michael Smith) moving to Avenue Q in New York City after graduating with an English degree. He moves into a building that has former TV child actor Gary Coleman (Haneefah Wood) as its superintendent. The building also has a porn-addicted monster, a kindergarten teacher, and an investment banker with a slacker roommate in the puppet roles. On the human side, although they never address the human/puppet mix in the text of the play, there is Brian, an unemployed comedian, and his therapist fiancée, Christmas Eve. The show follows the group of neighbors and their exploration of their purpose in life. It's like Sesame Street reinterpreted for HBO.
Just watching the cast deliver the tightly-choreographed show was a wonder, as they will exit the stage with one puppet, only to enter through another door with a different puppet, voice, and performance style ten seconds later. Sometimes one puppeteer would supply the physicality to a role, while another actually delivered that character's lines for the sake of continuity.
The hilarious score includes tracks like "Everyone's a Little Bit Racist," "The Internet is for Porn," and "I'm Not Wearing Underwear Today." While being topical and funny, the melodies hold their own, and will definitely be added to my iPod's collection of Broadway tunes.
As would be expected, there is a gay subplot featuring the Bert and Ernie-like combination of Nicky the slacker (performed by Robert McClure) and Rod the banker (Smith's other role). Nicky sings "If You Were Gay" to his potentially closeted roommate, letting him know that he would accept him as a gay roommate. Rod is eventually confronted about his assumed homosexuality by the other neighbors and confesses that he does have a secret, in the song "My Girlfriend, Who Lives in Canada." Is he, or isn't he? You'll have to catch the show to find out for yourself.
The show is definitely a fun, refreshing time that keeps you smiling widely for its duration. The cast really delivers strong performances across multiple roles, with a show appropriate for teens and up (the puppets do curse and have sex). There's even a daily lottery for $21.25 front-row seats for those on a budget.
If you visit NYC, it's definitely worth a trip to Avenue Q.