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Princeton and Kate Monster connect on Avenue Q.

Can You Tell Me How to Get . . .

By Kathryn Geurin

Avenue Q

Music and lyrics by Robert Lopez and Jeff Marks, book by Jeff Whitty, Directed by Jason Moore

Proctors Theater, through Jan. 25

Years ago, in the pages of this very paper, the horoscope instructed Gemini to find a hand puppet and wear it all week—a sort of unsubtle alter ego through which to say all the things they were too shy, mature, or polite to say themselves. It was a horrible suggestion for a horoscope. But, as the first national tour of Avenue Q proved on the Proctors’ stage Tuesday night, disarming your audience with puppets can work damn well for musical theater.

The multi-Tony Award-winner has sometimes been described as a parody of Sesame Street, or Sesame Street for grownups. But it’s not that simple. Avenue Q is an homage to the icons of childhood, to shared memories, and to the child still kicking and singing and faltering within us all. It is a smart, subversive and downright hilarious comedy. It is a challenge for grown-ups to examine themselves through the innocent and honest lens of childhood. It tackles issues of race, sexuality, love, aspirations and broken dreams through a cast of naďve and disgruntled puppets. And boy, does it work.

Avenue Q opens on, well, Avenue Q, a run-down stretch of row houses on the outskirts of Manhattan, where people, puppets and monsters live together in their own raw sort of harmony. Princeton, a recent college grad, moves into the neighborhood brimming with big dreams of finding his purpose and making a difference. His eager first number “What do you do with a BA in English?” is paired against the frustrated but peppy musings of his disgruntled neighbors in “It Sucks to Be Me.” This is obviously not your typical puppet show, your typical musical, your typical anything.

Set designer Anna Louizous has created a gritty and dynamic set, reminiscent of the clean, bright, primary stoops and storefronts of children’s television, but layered with the grime of reality: dull paint, a dusty box fan, stained laundry on the line. Think Sesame Street 10 years after the crayon factory closes. Bay windows and awnings unfold into interior sets like a Playskool farmhouse, and two TV screens hang above the action, interrupting characters with hilarious animated lessons about life and language. Robert Lopez and Jeff Marx, who conceived the unusual production, cowrote the music and lyrics. The score is deceptively simple, with catchy, sing-song tunes whose complex harmonies are influenced by ragtime rhythms, jazz harmonics, pop music, musical theater and the simple strains of children’s television. The lyrics are honest, clever, and refreshingly irreverent. Songs like “Everyone’s a Little Bit Racist,” “Schadenfreude,” and “The Internet Is For Porn,” are more than unexpected on the felt tongues of puppets, they are as matter-of-fact and real. Jeff Whitty’s book is at once smart, silly, shocking, satirical and sincere.

The puppet designs are spectacular, created and constructed by Rick Lyon, a Sesame Street alum who trained under Jim Henson himself, and who has brought not only his creative vision and skill to the plush cast, but a clear reverence for the influence that the famous Muppet crew has had on a generation. Lyon’s puppets are intentionally familiar, but very much their own.

The puppets, of course, would not work without their human-performer counterparts, and it is here that the concept comes to life. The entire cast forgoes showiness for honesty, and allows the focus to truly be on the puppets. The puppets become real characters, enriched by the human shadow of actor-puppeteers working them. The mechanical work with the puppets is masterful, the tricky onstage movement is seamless, the comic timing is brilliant, and the pockets of tenderness are amazingly real. The cast is vocally powerful, but controlled, never pushing the performance ahead of the story, and imbuing even the silliest, most irreverent numbers with sincerity and heart.

All the elements for a great musical are in place, and executed infallibly by director Jason Moore. But it is the songwriting duo’s ingenious concept that makes the show the daring, delightful, and truly groundbreaking musical that it is.

To watch the puppets, those familiar emblems of childhood, suffer through the ache and disappointment of an adult reality is agonizing. But their hope and their sincerity force you to acknowledge that the naďve, idealistic child you once were is still there. Avenue Q offers respect, irreverence and joy in equal measure for the adults we have become, and the children we’ll always be. It reminds us that, maybe, just maybe, life isn’t quite as complicated as we make it out to be, and that even adults could stand an animated musical lesson now and then.

kgeurin@metroland.net

 


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