Three years after its upset win of the 2004 Tony Award for Best Musical, Avenue Q remains an enchanting place to visit – and one with sincerity and compassion to match the laughs and satire. The musical about puppets and people searching for purpose is finally arriving in Washington for two weeks at the National Theatre; the cast as a whole is so polished and dead-on that the understudies are as accomplished in their roles as the regular performers.
The authors, Robert Lopez and Jeff Marx (music and lyrics) and Jeff Whitty (book), took their inspiration from certain children's television programs that teach lessons about friendship and teamwork along with the alphabet and numbers. As in those shows, puppets mingle with humans, although here the puppeteers are visible throughout and add facial and physical animation to Rick Lyon's marvelously flexible puppet designs.
The story begins as Princeton (Robert McClure), a recent college graduate puppet with no job skills, finds an affordable apartment on New York's scruffy Avenue Q. His neighbors include Brian (Cole Porter), an affable goof who never made it as a stand-up comic; his fiancée Christmas Eve (Angela Ai), a Japanese immigrant with two degrees in social work and an intentionally stereotypical accent; and the building superintendent, a washed-up former child star (Danielle K. Thomas). The rest are puppets, such as Kate Monster (Minglie Chen), a good-hearted kindergarten teaching assistant; Rod (McClure), a buttoned-up investment banker with a tendency toward screeching hysteria; Rod's easygoing friend and roommate Nicky (Cullen R. Titmas); the reclusive Trekkie Monster (Titmas); and a slinky singer named Lucy (Chen).
As the ads emphasize, the presence of puppets in no way makes Avenue Q a family-friendly show. The language is often rough, while much of the humor comes from the juxtaposition of gritty subject matter with chirpy tunes. (The educational lessons include the inevitability of racism, the uncertainty involved in seeking purpose in life, the role of the Internet as a provider of porn, and the meaning of schadenfreude — German, "happiness at the misfortune of others"). And, yes, some of the most riotous moments come from depictions of puppet nudity and sex.
All of this could have been funny but shallow and nasty, but the authors and director Jason Moore locate and emphasize the genuine emotions in all the characters, not least the ones made out of foam rubber. Kate Monster gets the most moving song in the score, and Christmas Eve offers a thoughtful tribute to the thin line between love and hate.
Moore's direction and the choreography by Ken Roberson succeed in cementing the illusion of oneness between puppet and puppeteer. The puppets may exist only from the waist up, but their operators demonstrate, for example, Lucy's hip-swiveling walk and Rod's uptight swagger (a contradiction in terms, perhaps, but real). Pulling the whole thing together, on a subliminal level, is the color coordination among the puppets and Mirena Rada's costumes.
The National Theatre