Avenue Q Music and Lyrics by Robert Lopez and Jeff Marx. Book by Jeff Whitty. Based on an Original Concept by Robert Lopez and Jeff Marx. Directed by Jason Moore. Choreographer - Ken Roberson. Puppets Conceived and Designed by Rick Lyon. Music Supervision, Arrangement, and Orchestrations by Stephen Oremus. Set Design by Anna Louizos. Costume Design by Miren Rada. Lighting Design by Howell Binkley. Sound Design by Acme Sound Partners. Animation Design by Robert Lopez. Music Director & Incidental Music by Gary Adler. Music Coordinator Michael Keller. Cast: Jennifer Barnart, Natalie Venetia Belcon, Stephanie D'Abruzzo, Jordan Gelber, Ann Harada, Rick Lyon, John Tartaglia.
Avenue Q would have its audiences believe that moving from one stage of life to another is never easy, though its transfer from the 120-seat Vineyard Theatre to Broadway's 805-seat Golden Theatre certainly seems to have come off without a hitch.
There have been a few changes, mostly minor. A few cosmetic adjustments have been made to Anna Louizos's set and Mirena Rada's costumes, two instruments have been added to the band (which, under musical director Gary Adler, sounds better than ever), Jason Moore's direction has been sharpened a bit, Jeff Whitty has honed his book, and Robert Lopez and Jeff Marx have made some small changes to their score.
But if you enjoyed Avenue Q Off-Broadway earlier this spring, you can rest assured that if you revisit the show on Broadway, the show will be functionally identical. And if you've never seen Avenue Q, you're seeing this comic and often delightful musical exactly as its creators intended, with its Off-Broadway intimacy intact.
That is both Avenue Q's greatest benefit and its most significant detriment. While Avenue Q has lost nothing moving from Off-Broadway to Broadway, it's also gained very little. It's a small show that fits well in a small house, but it's small show nonetheless. It doesn't get lost in the Golden, but neither does it ever come close to filling it wall-to-wall with the magic a real Broadway musical - whatever its cast size - is capable of generating.
That's certainly not to denigrate that cast in any way; the seven performers at the heart of Avenue Q are superbly talented in the acting, singing, and (in four cases) puppetry departments. Natalie Venetia Belcon, Jordan Gelber, and Ann Harada each play one fully-defined human character, while Jennifer Barnhart, Stephanie D'Abruzzo, Rick Lyon, and John Tartaglia manipulate and voice multiple puppets, creating highly distinct characters from Lyon's own colorful creations of foam and fur. The performers all make their characters believable, even under the most zany of circumstances.
So, it all makes sense that monsters intermingle with humans, that packing boxes and pizza boxes are as likely to break into song and dance as their human counterparts, or that TV icon Gary Coleman is on hand and being played by a woman (Belcon). Like the show's most obvious model, Sesame Street, the integrative sense permeating the proceedings makes it impossible for anything to seem incongruous. The puppets and people of Avenue Q may face real-world problems like poverty or broken relationships, but it's still a world where anything can (and frequently does) happen.
The story, presented within those boundaries, is about finding one's way in the world, whether it's in terms of a career and personal relationships (puppets Princeton and Kate Monster, performed by Tartaglia and D'Abruzzo respectively, pursue a relationship encompassing love, sex, betrayal, and just about everything in between), or even being true to one's self (Rod, also played by Tartaglia, questioning his sexuality while living with his friend, Nicky, played by Lyon). Neighbors Brian (Gelber) and Christmas Eve (Harada, giving a juicy comic performance) and Gary Coleman are there to lend an ear or a bit of advice, and help clear the television-prescribed path to fulfillment by show's end.
It's in the balance between reality and fantasy, and between paying homage to Sesame Street and parodying it outright, that leaves Avenue Q on somewhat shaky footing. Presenting itself as a children's show for grownups is a clever idea, but not enough alone to hide the weaknesses in the material. However cleverly presented and however charmingly performed, the show's jokes and gimmicks run dry before the first act comes to an end. No amount of intricate puppetry, mocking life lessons (such as a song-length examination of the word Schadenfreude), or tackling other children's television conventions can hide the fact that Avenue Q isn't capable of completely filling two hours any more than it is a Broadway-sized theater.
No, from beginning to end, Avenue Q feels exactly like an Off-Broadway musical in a Broadway house. The biggest things about it are the jokes, capable of creating rollicking laughter from the front row to the rear mezzanine much the way those in Hairspray, Urinetown, or The Producers can. But everything else - the music, the concept, even the size of the performances - is small. With the attitude of the majority of today's theatregoing public combined with sky-high ticket prices, small is not exactly in.
Of course, parody is in, and that might well work in this show's favor, allowing it to find audiences more easily than a couple of its recent predecessors in terms of emotional content and somewhat diminished scale, Amour and A Class Act. Avenue Q, if not better than those shows, is equally as capable of provoking laughs and tugging at the heartstrings, and its embracing of the current parodic mindset allows it to be more easily accessible and audience friendly.
But even those small shows were bigger, capable of finding height and width within the confines of their Broadway theaters in ways Avenue Q never approaches. That suggests, then, that perhaps what makes a Broadway musical is little more than state of mind. If that's truly the case, it's one Avenue Q would do well to adopt.