Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Avenue Q

Photos/Carol Rosegg

When Avenue Q first premiered in 2003, first at the Vineyard and then soon after on Broadway, it was a wild, rowdy shot of fresh air: a full-on puppet sex scene (a year before the film Team America), a porn-loving monster, and video snippets that drove the Sesame Street parallels home ("1, 2, 3, 4, 5 night stands--one-night stand"). This wasn't just a parody, though: the tale of Princeton's search for "purpose" resonated with audiences, so much so that that the musical ran longer than The Producers. In so doing, however, time did to Avenue Q what it has done to a ton of once wild neighborhoods: it gentrified it.

But so what? Plenty of people prefer to live and learn in the safety of comfortable musicals, and if anything, this brings Avenue Q closer to Sesame Street than ever. Besides, what really matters--Robert Lopez and Jeff Marx's music--is as catchy as ever, from "Schadenfreude" ("Fuck you lady, that's what stairs are for!") to "Everyone's a Little Bit Racist" ("If everyone stopped being so PC/maybe we could live in harmony").

The puppets hold up, too--perhaps the biggest compliment one can give to Anika Larsen is that she is so expressive with Kate Monster (and Lucy T. Slut) that at times, you forget she is there. Seth Rettberg, on the other hand, is so visible that it actually lends another dimension to his portrayals of Princeton and especially Rod, who gives a new meaning to "double takes." And through all that, Cullen R. Titmas and Maggie Lakis are still able to steal the show as the adorable, noose-toting Bad Idea Bears.

On the flatter side, however, however, are the character actors. Sala Iwamatsu overpowers the role of Christmas Eve--which is saying something, considering that she's a dominating Oriental...ahem, Asian-American...lady. Danielle K. Thomas is a bit too much like Gary Coleman in her portrayal of him: you get the feeling she's just barely showing up, a feeling reinforced by her lackluster number, "You Can Be As Loud As The Hell You Want." Worst of all is Nicholas Kohn--granted, he's playing Brian, a bad comedian who mopes and lazes around all day, but his low energy brings down every group number.

For all that, I still sat through Avenue Q--my third time--with a stupid grin on my face. (And if ever a show has earned both the "stupid" and "grin," it's this one.) Despite being gentrified, the neighborhood's still as charming as ever--those singing shipping boxes are still as cheap as ever, and Jason Moore's direction--particularly of Trekkie Monster, who pops up all over the stage during "The Internet Is For Porn"--is delightfully cheesy. And this is how Avenue Q manages to hold on to the sweet moments of romance ("Mix Tape," a song that will never grow dated) and true observations ("I Wish I Could Go Back To College"). It's a mystery why children delight in learning from puppets, but it's no surprise that adults can delight in and learn from them, too. Welcome home, Avenue Q; we missed you.

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