Cincinnati has seen Wicked, the big blockbuster of the 2003-2004 Broadway season twice already on tour Local audiences, however, haven't been able to experience the show that beat Wicked out for all the major Tony Awards (Best Score, Best Book, Best Musical) until nowbut only for nowwell, for two weeks actually. Avenue Q is a quirky, funny and irreverent musical that is best described as "Sesame Street" meets "South Park." It's not surprising that conservative Cincinnati gets the tour later than most of our neighboring big cities due to its decidedly adult content, but we should be thankful we're getting a chance to see it at all.
Avenue Q tells the story of Princeton, a recent college graduate, as he looks to find his purpose in life (along with a career and love). Did I mention that Princeton is a puppet? The characters that fill the stage are a delightful mishmash of "human-like" puppets, real humans (including Gary Colemanwho is played by a woman) and monster puppets (both the endearing and the weird). The book by Jeff Whitty is uniquely original, while also smartly using our memory of children's TV programs as a frame of reference and structure for the piece. It's extremely witty and extremely humorous to see ever-so-slight variations on familiar puppet characters dealing with issues such as closeted homosexuality, bigotry, dead end careers, Internet porn, one night stands and homelessness. Despite the cheeky and bold attitude, the show is ultimately about maturity, selflessness and self-acceptanceso it's not all frivolity.
The songs by Jeff Marx and Robert Lopez are a perfect fit for the material. The bouncy melodies are catchy and remind us of those kid TV themes without ever being a rip off of them. The lyrics match the dialogue's hilarity and wit, even when profane (what other Broadway show could have the song lyrics of "Grab your dick and double click" as heard in the song "The Internet Is For Porn"?). Song highlights include the tuneful "Purpose," a very funny duet for Bert and Ernie-like roommates entitled "If You Were Gay", and the plaintive "It's a Fine, Fine Line," where the soft-hearted Kate Monster sings of her love for and frustration with Princeton.
The national tour features a first-rate cast of seven performers. Recent CCM grad Seth Rettberg is the voice and puppeteer for both Princeton and Rod. Mr. Rettberg sings well and provides distinct portrayals of the two charactershis Princeton is eager and earnest, while Rod is high strung and self-loathing. Anika Larsen is an excellent singer, provides lots of nicely detailed acting choices, and likewise distinguishes her two puppet characters well. In Ms. Larsen's capable hands, Kate Monster is a sweet and endearing girl-next-door, while Lucy The Slut is, well, a slut! David Benoit gets lots of laughs as Trekkie Monster, and is a solid Nicky (the Ernie-like puppet) as well. Mr. Benoit and Maggie Lakis are likewise very funny in bringing to life the aptly named Bad Idea Bears, and Ms. Lakis makes a lot out of her brief stints as the stern Mrs. T. As their human neighbors, Danielle K. Thomas (Gary Coleman), Sala Iwamatsu (Christmas Eve) and Cole Porter (Brian) do well in support, with Ms. Thomas especially noteworthy in her role.
Director Jason Moore provides an aptly tongue-in-cheek tone to the piece, and carefully melds the "Sesame Street" vibe into every facet of the production. Mr. Moore's choice to have direct interaction between the puppets and the human characters, and not to or between the puppeteers, is a smart one as well. Audience members, however, benefit from seeing both the movement and position of the puppets as well as the facial expressions and "acting" of the puppeteers. The limited choreography by Ken Roberson is sufficient and appropriate, and Andrew Graham directs a rockin' six-piece band.
The unit set provided by Anna Louizos likewise suggests a "Sesame Street" type setting, albeit an appropriately more rundown and lower-income one, and offers a few interesting surprises (be sure to enjoy the cute bits displayed on the two video screens). The costumes by Mirena Rada for both the human characters and puppets are attractive, and the puppeteers are wisely kept in muted grays. The lighting by Howell Binkley is professionally rendered.
Avenue Q is fresh, entertaining, funny, and fun! Leave the kids at home and enjoy a nostalgic trip back your childhood (or that of your grown children) with the added punch of adult humor, language and situations. The national tour of this show is well-performed, laugh-inducing and musically appealing. Avenue Q continues at the Aronoff Center in Cincinnati, Ohio through May 3, 2009. For more information and tickets, call (513) 241-7469.