You know you're in for an unconventional but naughty good time when a show includes graphic puppet sex, cute but sadistic bears, and a special appearance by TV's Gary Coleman. What can somewhat be described as a very, very adult-leaning, expletive-spewing cousin of the iconic PBS children's series Sesame Street, AVENUE Q-whose 2nd National Tour is now playing a too-brief, week-long engagement at the Pantages Theatre in Hollywood through March 6-manages to be both entertaining and revolutionary.
A skewering yet charming musical parody of angst-riddled, post-collegiate adult life in a dilapidated lower-lower-middle-class borough of New York City, this groundbreaking show truly delights in the notion that life-as a grown-up-can be and is utterly disappointing... and that it isn't as filled with "sunny days, sweeping the clouds away" as we were first taught by Sesame Street's memorable theme song. Timely, surprisingly touching, mildly offensive, harmlessly risqué, and downright hilarious, AVENUE Q is easily one the smartest, funniest musical comedies ever to grace a Broadway stage in the last few decades.
A crowd-pleasing hit Off-Broadway before officially opening to more critical raves on Broadway in 2003, AVENUE Q defied prognosticators' predictions and won that season's Best Musical Tony Award (after a much talked-about campaign that urged voters to "Vote Your Heart"). The surprise win for the top honor came in a strong year that included Caroline, or Change and the blockbuster hit WICKED, but the show also earned cheered Tony wins for Jeff Whitty's aptly witty book and for the collaborative music-and-lyrics team of Robert Lopez and Jeff Marx. While lacking the bells and whistles of larger-scale shows, this cute little whippersnapper of a musical delivers the goods with engaging characters, edgy punchlines and a song set that will make Oscar the Grouch blush.
Structured like a lewder, R-rated stage spin-off of the TV series that inspired it, the show opens, naturally, with a titular theme-song that sounds just as peppy and bouncy-if only for its jaded lyrics that lists life's daily disappointments. Hardships are hopefully temporary, so they sing..." 'Til our dreams come true, we live on Avenue Q."
We first meet recent college graduate Princeton (puppeteered by David Colston Corris), who is puzzled as to what kind of job and life he'll have with a "useless" B.A. in English. Out on his own and apartment hunting, he stumbles upon Avenue Q (perceivably more affordable than the ritzier Avenue A, of course) and its broke but merry band of friendly neighbors.
One by one, we soon meet the other residents, complaining about the state of their lives, while having a spirited but friendly competition as to whose life "sucks more." There's Brian (Tim Kornblum), a recently laid off 32-year-old schlub whose dreams of becoming a late night TV comic are stalled by economic hardship (a common theme, it seems, among those living on this street). He whines alongside Kate Monster (puppeteered by Ashley Eileen Bucknam), a pretty and smart kindergarten teacher's assistant who dreams of one day opening an exclusive school for monsters. At the moment, though, she's more concerned about her perpetual dateless single-hood.
Next we meet bickering roommates, ne'er-do-well Nicky (puppeteered by Michael Liscio Jr.) and uptight Republican banker Rod (also voiced and puppeteered by Corris). Though messy and intrusive, Nicky is refreshingly open-minded and wishes his anal-retentive roommate would just come out already. Yes, dear viewers, their resemblance to Bert and Ernie from Sesame Street is by no means an accidental coincidence (it is also, perhaps, a subtle nod to those pesky rumors about Bert and Ernie's longtime "companionship").
Up next to vie for the "my life sucks the most" title is Brian's heavily-accented fiancée Christmas Eve (Lisa Helmi Johanson) who, despite a Master's degree, frets over the bills because she's a therapist with no clients and is engaged to an unemployed, directionless Brian.
When Princeton arrives to try to rent the empty apartment in their shared tenement, Brian introduces the newbie to the building's superintendent: none other than pint-sized former child star Gary Coleman (Anita Welch). Allegedly robbed of his TV earnings by his parents, the now-broke actor is hiding out at Avenue Q from a world that constantly makes jokes about him or, worse, persistently asks him to recite that catch-phrase from Diff'rent Strokes ("What'chu talkin' 'bout, Willis?"). Ultimately, the neighbors agree that Gary has it worst than anyone, but they also realize that misery loves company, and that together they can cope with it all.
As Princeton continues his desperate search to find his life's purpose, he quickly enters into a romantic relationship with Kate, much to her unbridled excitement. Meanwhile, Broadway-loving Rod refuses to acknowledge that he's gay, yet harbors a secret crush on his roommate. Along the way, we are also introduced to internet porn-obsessed Trekkie Monster (voiced by Liscio Jr. with some puppeteering assistance from Kerri Brackin), sexed-up club singer Lucy T. Slut (handled also by Bucknam) who seduces Princeton into a one-night stand, and a cute but mischievous pair of "Bad Idea Bears" (also puppeteered by Liscio Jr. and Brackin) who somehow convince Princeton into doing very bad, sadistic things. (Sample taunt: "Take her home! She's wasted! Yay!")
Delightful as it is fiendish, AVENUE Q perfectly captures the nostalgic affection most young adults have/had for Sesame Street, but at the same time, upends and lampoons exactly what made the show so heartwarming and endearing to its fans in the first place: it's little life lessons targeted to the toddler and pre-teen set, offered with a spoonful of sugar by the most adorably custom-sewn creatures and their upstanding human friends.
But here in the cynical, financially-strapped world of AVENUE Q, the human/monster/puppet population-via some very cleverly written lyrics-touch on such hot-button adult subjects like unemployment, racism, internet porn, closeted gay republicans, selfless philanthropy, and even loud sexual activities. As you'll quickly learn throughout the show, you don't need Big Bird with a B.A. in English to realize that this show is purely for grown folks' consumption.