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Off Broadway Reviews

Avenue Q

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

Princeton, Seth Rettberg, Kate Monster, and Anika Larsen
Photo by Carol Rosegg.

You can't keep a good puppet down. Or, for that matter, a bad one. Both types - along with a few sympathetic humans - are back with a vengeance as Avenue Q, the tiny show that could, returns to performances, now at New World Stages, where it will undoubtedly remain cozily ensconced for many years to come. And why not? As it is, the show's background is so impressive and storied that this newest chapter in its ongoing biography is just one more improbability in an existence that's been filled with them.

Conceived by two unknowns (Jeff Marx and Robert Lopez) who met in the BMI Workshop and collaborated on the score while a new librettist, Jeff Whitty, took over the book, the musical was the most unknown of quantities when it opened at the Vineyard Theatre in spring of 2003. An adult riff on Sesame Street? With a cast of nobodies? Holding puppets for over two hours? This wasn't your uncle's Broadway musical. It wasn't even your best friend's Broadway musical, whether or not your best friend was a Renthead.

What it was, however, was a critical and popular hit, both at the Vineyard and at the John Golden when it transferred to Broadway that July. While there, it won over mainstream audiences and (though there's a lot of grumbling over this part) Tony voters, who bestowed on it the 2004 Best Musical Tony Award everyone assumed was the divine right of the hyper-juggernaut Wicked. The show ran for another five-plus years, until its final performance last month - at which its producers announced that the show would be moving back Off-Broadway.

There's a musical somewhere in that tale! But it's one that need never be written, because it probably wouldn't look much different than the one Marx, Lopez, Whitty, and their director, Jason Moore, have actually devised.

Their show deals with exactly the vagaries and uncertainties, successes and failures, and braveries and trepidations of the post-college life Avenue Q itself has led. So when the first puppet, the fresh- and yellow-faced Princeton, arrives at the start of the show to sing that question of all followers of useless majors, "What do you do with a B.A. in English?", you know on some level what the answer is: Write a musical and make a career where you never had one before. Ah, but that's dealt with, too —if not until its last scene - in the way everything else is: smartly, irreverently, and with the knowledge that the only thing that matters is that nothing matters.

Cullen R. Titmas, Nicky, Danielle K. Thomas, Nicholas Kohn, and Sala Iwamatsu
Photo by Carol Rosegg.

Princeton's journey, from acquiring knowledge to truly understanding the world around him, is at the heart of the show, taking on a relevance in our current recession-gripped climate that it didn't have when the show premiered. This makes the newly despondent Princeton (operated and voiced by Seth Rettberg) prime for exploration of and exploitation by adult life's greatest mysteries: women, particularly Kate Monster, his furry neighbor in the lowest-rent neighborhood he could find, and Lucy the Slut, a sultry club singer (both puppets are manipulated and voiced by Anika Larsen); two roommates of questionable sexual and psychological orientations, Rod and Nicky (Rettberg as the former, Cullen R. Titmas the latter); the sci-fi-and-porn-loving recluse, Trekkie Monster, and the self-descriptive Bad Idea Bears (Titmas and Maggie Lakis); and a handful of actual people: a failing standup comedian named Brian (Nicholas Kohn) and his failing-therapist wife, Christmas Eve (Sala Iwamatsu), and the next-best-thing-to-slum's superintendent, Gary Coleman (yes, that one, played by Danielle K. Thomas).

The life lessons they endure around the neighborhood (lovingly and whimsically designed by Anna Louizos) remain as incisive and inciting as they've ever been: the knowledge that everyone has a perfectly valid reason to sing "It Sucks to Be Me," even if their lives appear perfect from the outside; arriving at the conclusion that, political correctness aside, "Everyone's a Little Bit Racist"; and that, because romance conquers all, "You Can Be as Loud as the Hell You Want (When You're Makin' Love)." These songs and others, which also address concepts like "Schadenfreude" and heartbreak (in "There's a Fine, Fine Line") generally fit well within the show's fractured educational-television idiom, and are accompanied by a band (under Gary Adler's conducting) that apparently hasn't been downsized since Broadway.

That's not true of everything. The new theater is smaller and more institutional in feel than the John Golden, but that helps the show regain some of the intimacy it lost between the Vineyard and Broadway. And although the performers are all talented and amiable alumni from other productions, they lack the expansive personalities and artisan puppeteering chops the original actors (including John Tartaglia, Stephanie D'Abruzzo, Jennifer Barnhart, and puppet designer Rick Lyon) had. So they have an even harder time stretching a 30-minute-with-commercials joke to over two hours - something that's been a challenge with this show since its earliest days.

There have been a few minor rewrites and restagings over the years: I'm sure a few lines of dialogue near the beginning and a reprise in Act II weren't there when the show opened, and when Princeton and Kate Monster used to sing of a "Mix Tape," they held a real tape rather than a CD. (I assume Marx and Lopez thought "mix disc" would be hard for puppets to sing. They're probably right.) But the show is ultimately almost exactly what it's always been: warts and wryness, brilliance and brittleness, good ideas and mediocre ones jumbled together to address early-adult concerns too timeless to allow the show to ever be dated.

Well... much. After Barack Obama's inauguration in January, the climactic lyric "George Bush is only for now," instructing that even the direst turmoil is only temporary, started creaking mighty loudly. A contest to revise it was not a rousing artistic success, but since the Broadway closing, the writers have chosen a replacement: "Fox News is only for now." Given that channel's consistently stratospheric ratings, for better or worse, one suspects it will be hanging on long after Avenue Q has closed this time around. But it's well in keeping with this show's eternal pluck for Marx, Lopez, Whitty, and the rest to give Rupert Murdoch a serious run for his money.

Avenue Q
New World Stages / Stage 3, 340 West 50th Street Between 8th and 9th Avenues
Running Time: 2 hours 15 minutes with one 15 minute intermission.
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: Telecharge