In fact, this grownup takeoff on Sesame Street, playing at the Vineyard in a house that it will surely outgrow, seems a ready-made success. Very few shows by unknown creators -- in this case, the music and lyrics team of Robert Lopez and Jeff Marx -- emerge with such a level of confidence. (That short list includes Rent and Urinetown). With the South Park movie rounding out its list of acknowledged predecessors, Avenue Q covers territory that is fairly well mapped by now, yet it displays the assurance and enthusiasm of a well trained college graduate who is light on life experience but long on creativity and zany fun.
No coincidence, then, that post-college life is the show's topic. Avenue Q tells the raunchy, funny story of recent graduates who congregate in one of the few New York neighborhoods they can afford -- presumably in Brooklyn, which actually does have avenues P and R but no Q. On our fictional route, expertly set-designed by Ann Louizos to recreate Sesame Street, we find groom-to-be Brian (Jordan Gelber) and his Japanese betrothed, Christmas Eve (Ann Harada). Two of the show's three non-puppet characters, the couple lives adjacent to Nicky (Rick Lyon) and Rod (John Tartaglia). Like all of the show's puppets, these male roommates look and operate just like Jim Henson's Muppets, except that their human handlers are fully visible on stage as they speak and sing for them.
Nicky and Rod physically resemble two of the most famous Muppets, Ernie and Bert, with their (arguably) gay relationship subtext brought front and center for a coming-out tale. Also in the Sesame Street vein, ethnicity is gently tweaked in the story of neighborhood teacher puppet Kate Monster (Stephanie D'Abruzzo), whose furry appearance causes her to be treated differently and who dreams of starting a school for monster children. Young Princeton, a preppy puppet played by John Tartaglia, soon arrives in the neighborhood, singing plaintively: "What do you do with a B.A. in English?" He and Kate form a fractious liaison that leads to sweet life lessons -- as do all the show's plotlines, sometimes in twisted form. For example, the word of the day is "schadenfreude," the German term for taking pleasure in others' pain; it is musically explained for us by a character named Gary Coleman, a child sitcom star turned building superintendent played by Natalie Venetia Belcon.
Book writer Jeff Whitty mixes elements of South Park and Sesame Street like an expert chef, but Avenue Q might have engaged us more fully had it been willing to take sharper shots at contemporary targets like the New Economy's dashed dreams and the odd combination of political hope and apathy that defines youth. Still, the script delivers laughs aplenty, and the cast is stellar; Tartaglia does terrific work as both Rod and Princeton, while D'Abruzzo is thoroughly charming as Kate Monster and her nemesis, Lucy T. Slut.
As solid as it is on its own terms, Avenue Q owes so much to South Park for its tone, and to television in general for its source material, that it sometimes feels less like a theater piece than a taping of a TV show. It's almost as though the performance is taking place for a camera none of us can see. Consequently, Avenue Q is a slightly less personal experience than other shows of its ilk -- e.g., Urinetown, which uses a more theatrical vocabulary. Still, Avenue Q is wildly enjoyable. The range of skills on display is amazing, notably those of Rick Lyon; this puppet master designed his non-human charges and provides many of their voices, some of which are traceable directly to The Cookie Monster and other Henson creations.