"What do you do with a B.A. in English?" The opening line of Avenue Q, the new musical at the Vineyard Theatre, sets the tone for the evening not only because it's a very funny and an excellent question, but because it's being sung by a puppet.
A frequently delightful take-off on the children's television classic Sesame Street, Robert Lopez and Jeff Marx (who composed the score and wrote the lyrics) and Jeff Whitty (who wrote the book), pull no punches, even from the play's opening seconds. They stretch their concept of an adult children's show as far as it can go; then, sadly, they stretch it further.
While Avenue Q is chock full of good comic ideas, it's neither tight nor funny enough to sustain a running time of two hours; indeed, it feels that director Jason Moore could have cut at least fifteen minutes from the show, possibly just through the unnecessary verses of songs that serve to dilute the humor. The show's charming opening and the surprisingly heartwarming ending are near perfect, but there's a bit too much dallying around in the middle.
Yet this is mostly forgivable, for when Avenue Q hits, it hits big. The funny book and funnier score play a significant role in the success the show enjoys, but they'd be nowhere without the jaw-droppingly talented ensemble of performers that has been assembled. As great as Jordan Gelber, Ann Harada, and Natalie Venetia Belcon are - and they are all sharply funny and vocally adept - it's the sublime talents of John Tartaglia, Stephanie D'Abruzzo, Jennifer Barnhart, Phoebe Kreutz, and Rick Lyon that really sell the show. (Lyon's work is more remarkable still, since an accident in previews left him voicing puppets offstage to another performer's manipulation at the performance I attended. The coordination between Lyon and those filling in for him was seamless.)
For it's these performers who manipulate the puppets, and do so with a depth of detail and a dramatic range that suggests Hamlet would not be out of the question. Each playing a multitude of puppet characters (brilliantly designed by Lyon), they prove as expressive with their speaking and singing voices as they do with their puppet manipulation. They may operate two puppets (one on each hand) or switch back and forth between wildly different voices with no lag time, but they never fail to evoke all the pathos and humor imaginable from these characters, making them, in every way, completely real.
By the time Avenue Q is finished, don't be surprised if you find you've fallen as in love with the soul-searching Princeton (Tartaglia), the big-dreaming fish-out-of-water Kate Monster (D'Abruzzo), the sexually-frustrated Rod (Tartaglia), his roommate Nicky (voiced by Lyon), or the Bad Idea Bears (Lyon and Barnhart) as you may have with the Muppets. They grow on you. But so do their manipulators. The extraordinary artistry and talent of the puppeteers makes them equally integral to the experience and make it impossible to imagine Avenue Q without them.
Anna Louizos's sets are at once recognizable and full of surprises, a theater of endless variation for both humans and puppets, and establish the atmosphere for Avenue Q with an indelible flair. But the specifics of the show's story and songs are best discovered in the theater; their comic value depends on surprise and identification with their easily-identifiable antecedents, and won't be revealed in great depth here. Suffice it to say, the show deals with many adult issues, and what may leave some rolling in the aisles may be inappropriate for younger children (there is some coarse language and an explicit scene or two).
But most adults in their mid-20s or early 30s will easily be able to relate to the challenges faced by the characters, and may even leave the theater with a greater sense of serenity and understanding than when they walked in. That's the true magic of Avenue Q: like the program it spoofs, it has important messages to share, and presents lessons from which everyone will be able to take something. Doing it with a strong sense of humor and splashy music goes far to hide the show's imperfections, but can do nothing to camouflage the heart and inspiring messages just beneath the surface.