Avenue Q has just found a new home Off-Broadway at New World Stages in New York, but I was lucky enough to see the show at the Palace Theater, in Waterbury, CT. Although it won the Tony Award for Best Musical in 2004, this uncomfortably funny, irreverent and sometimes downright raunchy show is not a musical that I could count among my favorites.
With music and lyrics by Robert Lopez and Jeff Marx and a book by Jeff Whitty, Avenue Q is a skewed, adult version of a Sesame Street-type world inhabited by people and puppets. Like Sesame Street, everyone sings and there are short animated “teaching” videos shown throughout the performance. The difference is that the inhabitants of Avenue Q are all 20-somethings dealing with the issues, problems and temptations that come with that age, instead of young children.
This run-down neighborhood houses a recent college graduate, Princeton, who is seeking his purpose in life and falls for a cute monster teacher named Kate. There is also an investment banker named Rod who is uptight and afraid to admit that he’s gay; Rod’s unemployed slob of a roommate named Nicky; Trekkie Monster, a pervert who lives in an upstairs apartment and loves porn; and an aspiring stand-up comic named Brian and his Japanese wife, Christmas Eve. A buxom chanteuse named Lucy the Slut, and the Bad Idea Bears (a takeoff on the Care Bears) who convince people to do what they want without thinking of the consequences, round out the puppet cast. Adding to the mix is Gary Coleman (played by Nigel Jamaal Clark), the actor from Different Strokes, who is now a super, living down his childhood career.
So what’s not to love? My problem with the play is simply that all of the characters seemed trapped on the edge of adulthood but with an adolescent mindset. They inhabit a world where 30 is old, and they have all of the freedom that comes with adulthood but none of the maturity to deal with the responsibilities. So for me, the humor of the play seemed old – I had that “been there, done that, survived and moved on” feeling. I thought the jokes were silly and sophomoric, and that the only thing these characters needed was to grow up.
Of course, maybe this just means that I’ve finally crossed over to the realm of “old,” but I couldn’t seem to immerse myself in their world. Why would I want to? With songs like, “It Sucks to Be Me,” The Internet is for Porn,” and “Everyone’s a Little Bit Racist,” I thought the laughs were not because it was funny, but because I was sitting there thinking, “I can’t believe that they are singing about that.”
There is a scene where after an unfortunate night with Long Island Iced Tea (again, been there, done that) we are treated to puppet nudity and sex on the stage, while the rest of the cast sings, “You Can Be as Loud as the Hell you Want.” I thought, “Really? Puppet sex again? I saw Team America; do I have to see this again?”
But it was not all bad. After my initial chagrin at having to witness such a scene, I thought it was pretty ingenious on the part of the choreographer to have puppets doing it on stage, especially given the fact that they have no lower extremities. (Try to figure that one out – really, you’d have to see it to believe it!)
It was also a feat for each of the actors to be able to act, sing, and manage a puppet or two during the entire show. It takes extraordinary talent to do all of the above, and all of the actors lived up to the task admirably. Brent Michael DiRoma played both Princeton, the wide-eyed innocent on the block, and Rod, the tortured and closeted investment banker. He was so convincing in both roles that the audience could easily sympathize with the characters. At one point, when Rod once again buried his true feelings and bemoaned his lonely life, you could almost hear a collective “awww” come from the audience.
Jacqueline Grabois was also excellent as the cute teacher, Kate Monster, and as Lucy the Slut. It was fun to watch her as she bounced back and forth between the characters, taking on a different walk, attitude, and voice to fill the role. Jason Heymann played Trekkie Monster, Nicky and Bear, and others, and he seemed a virtuoso at switching voices as the characters demanded.
The highlight of the performance came at the end of the show, when the entire ensemble joined for the song, “For Now.” Here we were treated to cast members with different puppets on each hand, singing verses in alternating voices, a brilliant display of the difficulty of their roles and the uniqueness of their talent.
Not everyone gets a happy ending by the close of the show. Princeton may never find his purpose, but the show ends on a hopeful note, stating that things may be bad, but the bad times won’t last forever. It is a nice sentiment for a show that is as raunchy and silly as Avenue Q, and you could leave the theater with a smile on your face. Only you can decide if the hopeful feeling will last or if, like the song says, it is only "For Now."
About the theater: The Palace Theater in Waterbury, Connecticut is celebrating its Fifth Anniversary Gala Season this year. Since its reopening in 2004, the theater has hosted close to 480 live performances. Its vision is to “build a strong sense of community and an appreciation for the arts by operating, maintaining and sustaining the Palace Theater as a financially viable not-for-profit performing arts center that provides positive artistic, cultural, educational, social and financial impact to the Greater Waterbury area.”
This former vaudeville house has undergone a $30 million restoration and is now the most beautiful theater I’ve ever been in. As I walked around it, and even after seeing the spacious restroom, I thought that if New York theaters were like this one, they would be worth the astronomical prices they charge for admission.
Luckily, Connecticut residents and those willing to take the scenic drive to the Palace Theater can see Broadway shows, concerts, comedians, and the ballet at affordable prices. After Avenue Q, the rest of their 2009–2010 Broadway series will include The Color Purple, Hairspray, Cirque Dreams Illumination, A Chorus Line, and Beauty and Beast. Additional information can be found at the Palace Theater website, or call 203-755-4700.