and Kate Monster connect on Avenue Q.
You Tell Me How to Get . . .
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.
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.