Four years after opening on Broadway, two years after a brief Las Vegas run and a year after opening on the West End, Avenue Q finally launched its U.S. tour in July of this year. Speculation about a production tailored for a more mainstream crowd swirled when the show won the 2006 Best Musical Tony Award (in what was widely considered a huge upset over the popular Wicked). Questions of how this blue-hued little puppet show might be adapted for a presumedly more conservative audience are now moot - it hasn't really been changed at all. One might think of a few lines and situations - a double-click rhyme, nude puppet sex and boasting of a Canadian girlfriend, for instance - that could be thought of as line-crossers for a mid-America presentation, but all those naughty bits are still there as is pretty much everything else. And, based on the audible reaction in Pittsburgh, we're ok with that.
Robert Lopez and Jeff Marx (music and lyrics) and Jeff Whitty (book) took an idea one might see on comedy skit TV, something along the lines of "Sesame Street - the Older Years," and turned it into a full-scale musical comedy show. The characters are twenty and thirty-somethings, they face grown-up problems, they relish grown-up humor, and they participate in grown-up activities. They are still Muppets (or Muppet-like), and we still see spelled-out lessons on new words (schadenfreude) and counting (one-night stand), but it's not your four-year-old's "Sesame Street." By encouraging a little self-reflection, Avenue Q offers the audience a humorous take on some things we might readily admit (earning a college degree isn't an immediate path to success) and some that we may be hesitant to admit (we're all a little bit racist). This look in the mirror may be a little humbling, but mostly it's just a chance to laugh at situations that can be pretty serious when you're living through them.
As the lights go up on Anna Louizos' re-creation of the Sesame Street neighborhood, Princeton (Robert McClure) arrives looking for a cheap apartment. He's a recent college graduate but has yet to answer the question, "What Do You Do With a BA in English?" Princeton meets local residents Kate Monster (Kelli Sawyer), a kindergarten assistant; Brian (Cole Porter), a bit of a slacker, and his Japanese fianceé Christmas Eve (Angela Ai), who appears to be a little concerned about Brian's lack of ambition; roommates Nicky (David Benoit) and Rod (McClure); the familiarly gruff and straight-talking Trekkie Monster (Benoit); and Gary Coleman (yes, that Gary Coleman), the landlord who is traditionally played by an African-American actress (Carla Renata). Princeton is searching for his life's purpose, and Avenue Q allows us to watch his progress through routine "Sesame Street"-like devices of skit-like scenes, animated graphics (shown on two video screens) and songs.
As on "Sesame Street," some of the Avenue Q characters are human, but most are puppets. The puppeteers are not hidden; in fact, they perform the roles themselves as well as manipulating the puppets in character. The actors in this cast who are required to this double duty have performed the show on Broadway and/or Las Vegas, and all are accomplished actors and puppeteers. As Princeton, McClure is a charming and earnest "every-guy"; as the puppet-in-the-closet Rod, he provides a more sensitive and emotional character. Sawyer's Kate Monster is a good match for McClure's Princeton; as the the brassy nightclub singer Lucy T. Slut, she gets a chance to break out with sass and strong vocals (though Minglie Chen makes the most of her hip-swinging entrances and exits when she takes over as Lucy). Benoit is superb as Trekkie and Nicky, strong voiced and very expressive. He's also terrific with Chen as the Bad Idea Bears, who look cuddly but encourage bad behavior.
The very funny and pointed songs by Lopez and Marx, Whitty's well constructed dialog and Louizos' set combine with smooth orchestrations by Stephen Oremus and clever puppet design by Rick Lyon to create a show which, though sometimes the humor is derived from absurdity ("I can't believe a puppet said that!"), is familiar yet smart, fresh and entertaining.
Avenue Q, recommended for ages 13 and up, is at the Benedum Center through November 25. For tickets and schedule, visit pgharts.org or call (412) 456-6666. The tour continues next to Baltimore (December 11-23) and Minneapolis (January 1-13); for more information on the tour, visit BroadwayAcrossAmerica.com.