Book by Jeff Whitty
Music and lyrics by
Robert Lopez and Jeff Marx
Based on an original concept by Robert Lopez and Jeff Marx
Directed by Jason Moore
New World Stages
340 West 50th Street
Somewhere around the age of six we realized “Sesame Street” wasn’t being completely straight with us. We still tuned in, of course — if only to see the clumsy baker tumble down the staircase with his nine coconut-custard pies — but the everyday horrors of childhood made it difficult to accept PBS’s impossibly ideal world in which race is irrelevant, everyone is special and knowledge is humanity’s greatest virtue.
For anyone still resentful that life is not how it was presented on children’s television, there is the durably brilliant Avenue Q, which recently moved off-Broadway to New World Stages after a six-year Broadway run. The hilarious 2004 Tony winner for Best Musical will bring a smile to your face from its opening animation sequence to its warmly deterministic closing number, “For Now.” In between, you may catch yourself actually caring about the adventures of Princeton (Seth Rettberg), a wide-eyed preppy puppet, fresh out of college, who discovers the world is not so easy to set ablaze. As Princeton searches for his true calling, he makes friends with the other residents of his low-rent New York tenement, including a furry-faced teacher’s assistant, a budding comedian, a Japanese therapist and the porn-loving Trekkie Monster.
Creators Robert Lopez and Jeff Marx, along with book-writer Jeff Whitty — all born in the ‘70s — brilliantly fuse the self-esteem-boosting ethos of their childhoods with the politically incorrect sensibilities of Mel Brooks and the Zucker brothers. Indeed, Avenue Q thrives on the lampoon rulebook first established by “Airplane!” and kept alive by Seth MacFarlane: Insult everyone and you offend no one. But where “Family Guy” gives us nothing to chew on outside of its zany cutaways, Avenue Q is not afraid to offer philosophical heft. Princeton’s disillusionment is surprisingly sad. He wants the purposeful life he was promised, and his entire belief system crumbles when he doesn’t get it.
The cast of Avenue Q is flawless. Rettberg, Anika Larsen, Maggie Lakis and Cullen R. Titmas match the emotions of their various puppet characters beat for beat while blending seamlessly into the background. Meanwhile, the human characters refuse to be upstaged by their puppet co-stars. The marvelous Sala Iwamatsu, as Christmas Eve, has a voice five times her size, and Danielle K. Thomas is priceless as Gary Coleman, the former child star relegated to custodial work.
It’s impossible not to wonder what the great Muppeteer Jim Henson, who died in 1990, would have thought of Avenue Q. Is he rolling in his grave over the idea of Muppet-esque fuzzies singing “Everyone’s a Little Bit Racist,” or is he smiling down with an approving chuckle? I would hope the latter, seeing how Henson understood better than anyone that successful children’s characters must be firmly rooted in an adult reality. Kermit might have had an easier time being green if the people around him were colorblind, but it’s hard to imagine he’d have anything interesting to sing about in an ideal world.
Originally published in Show Business Weekly, October 2009