Here's a jaunty new musical, transferred from Off-Broadway to Broadway at a reported cost of $3 million, about a streetful of unemployed twentysomethings who are either unable or disinclined to grow up. (One of them readily admits that he's 32.) The frustrated group subsists in cramped apartments on a New York City thoroughfare so shabby that, for them, a move to the Lower East Side would be a big step up the socio-economic ladder. Perhaps due to a subconscious fear of taking on responsibility in a world where job opportunities have shrunk, they behave in the determinedly dumbed-down manner of teens eager to differentiate themselves from their unsupportive elders. You could say that in their insistence on remaining emotionally and societally childish, the Avenue Q characters are the Rent crowd a half-decade and a large lapse in confidence later, or they're the lost boys of Peter Pan as they might be written by Bobby and Peter Farrelly a century on. Incidentally, many of these characters are nearly-life-sized hand puppets manipulated by actors who snappily mouth the lines and lyrics.
One could also say, as theatergoers who attended the Vineyard Theatre performances downtown may already have, that Avenue Q is Sesame Street for slackers. That stands to reason, since a number of the show's creators have been associated with that TV show, including puppet designer-puppeteer Rick Lyon and actor-puppeteers John Tartaglia, Stephanie D'Abruzzo, and Jennifer Barnhart. They and composer-wordsmiths Robert Lopez and Jeff Marx acknowledge the influence of Sesame Street creators Jim Henson and Frank Oz. It seems as though this gang of talented people, along with librettist Jeff Whitty, shrewdly observed that their peers were raised on Sesame Street and haven't yet been completely weaned from it.
The Avenue Q team has chosen to speak to these hold-outs on their own level. In doing so, they've cannily crafted a tuner that courts favor by including a lyric such as "It sucks to be me," which is repeated many times in an early ditty by most of the characters. Then there's the lyric "grab your dick and double click," an imperative that enlivens a song titled "The Internet is for Porn." The creators have also seeded-in dialogue like "there is cool shit to do" (about visiting New York City landmarks) and at least three punchline "fuck you"s. There's full-frontal puppet nudity when romantic leads Princeton (a tousled-haired puppet controlled by John Tartaglia) and school teacher Kate Monster (controlled by Stephanie D'Abruzzo) get drunk and have sex. As they go at it, neighbor handyman Gary Coleman (Natalie Venetia Belcon) belts "You Can Be Loud as the Hell You Want (When You're Making Love)." And one Avenue Q participant is blatantly tagged "Lucy T. Slut" (played by Stephanie D'Abruzzo, neatly doubling).
It's worth noting that a crack about a Republican investment banker prompts one of the evening's biggest cheer-jeers from the an audience that, in the prosperous '90s, would have been swelled by actual or incipient investment bankers. It's also worth noting that, in a show featuring a number titled "Everyone's a Little Bit Racist," this somehow forgiving sentiment is happily exploited by the writers' including among the dramatis personae a Japanese woman called Christmas Eve (Ann Harada). This character speaks pidgin English and has trouble saying the letter "l," a speech challenge that's underlined in a song dubbed "The More You Ruv Someone." No one seems to think this hoary fillip is at all offensive, but maybe only Mel Brooks could truly defuse it.
Perhaps Marx, Lopez, and Whitty are astutely reflecting their generation's mentality; there are abundant examples of genuine sophistication throughout the revue-like show that seem to countermand the script's low-common-denominator thrust. A joke about the questionable value of psychotherapy is a true thigh-slapper. The lyric that runs "Ethnic jokes may be uncouth / But you laugh because they're based on truth" is, well, based on truth. The plight of Princeton, a college graduate unable to land a position, is certainly recognizable. And a couple of the songs, sometimes accompanied by Lopez-designed animation displayed on two plasma screens, spread cheer while fleshing out the characters' dilemmas -- that is, they spread cheer until they begin repeating themselves within a particular song or from song to song. The second-act "Schadenfreude" is amusing, for example, but its smiling cynicism is very similar to that of "Everyone's a Little Bit Racist."
Contributing to the small-scale musical's effectiveness are the energy and dedication of the performers and the production team. Beginning with the lively Tartaglia, who occasionally injects a 13-year-old boy's crack into his voice, and continuing through D'Abruzzo, Lyon, Barnhart, Belcon, Gelber, and Harada, the cast members are wide-eyed and eager as pluckily directed by Jason Moore. Congratulations also to set designer Anna Louizos (watch the windows in the tenement); costume designer Mirena Rada, who has dolled up the puppets just as smartly, or more so, than the live performers; lighting designer Howell Binkley, who replaced Frances Aronson in the move uptown; and Acme Sound Design, taking over from Brett Jarvis.