No Snuffleupagus on this street
If the words “Children’s Television Workshop” light up old neural centers in your brain, consider yourself in the right demographic for “Avenue Q,” the diverting Tony-winning musical that lends a new twist to the familiar “Sesame Street” formula.
The educational objectives have drifted somewhat from learning how to cross the street and count in Spanish. Focusing on twentysomethings in that awkward phase between college graduation and financially solvent adulthood, the show dwells on such advanced concepts as self-acceptance, romantic commitment and (no need to freak out, people) life purpose.
But don’t by any means get the impression that the theatrical curriculum is dull or earnest. Performed by a mixed cast of humans and puppets, “Avenue Q” is one of the jauntiest musicals to come around in a long while.
With an entertaining if evanescent score by Robert Lopez and Jeff Marx, and a jokey book by Jeff Whitty, “Avenue Q” doesn’t point the way toward a new direction in the American musical. Nor is it even a showcase for our most talented performers. But it’s cleverly pulled off, all the same, and with its tender heart and bawdy sense of humor, there’s no point in being a curmudgeon about it.
The tale begins when Princeton, a preppy Muppet-like creature who’s voiced and handled by Robert McClure, arrives on Avenue Q looking for an apartment in an ungentrified (i.e., affordable) part of town. He takes a rather dumpy place that’s shown to him by Gary Coleman (Carla Renata), a superintendent in the neighborhood now that his star has fallen from his “Diff’rent Strokes” days.
Princeton isn’t thrilled with his prospects, but as he laments, “What do you do with a BA in English?” The question gives rise to a very funny aria that articulates the terror every ex-lit major feels after leaving the relative safety of school (“I can’t pay the bills yet, ‘cause I have no skills yet, the world is a big scary place”). Fortunately for him, he isn’t the only person having anxiety attacks on his new block.
The menagerie of angst-ridden characters includes Brian (Cole Porter -- yes, that’s really the actor’s name), a frustrated stand-up comic, and his Japanese fiancée, Christmas Eve (Angela Ai), a struggling therapist. There’s a pair of puppet roommates named Nicky and Rod (ably manipulated by Christian Anderson and McClure), who might remind you of Ernie and Bert, except that Rod, the Bert-like character, is having trouble accepting that he’s gay. And there’s a grouchy, solitary weirdo known as Trekkie Monster (Anderson again, working his puppetry magic), who spends a lot of time in front of his computer -- a mystery solved in the raucously hilarious “The Internet Is for Porn” number.
The newfound object of Princeton’s affection is Kate Monster (beautifully brought to life by Kelli Sawyer), a kindergarten assistant who, being a monster, is a little sensitive about her background. Their crisis-prone relationship sparks all kinds of necessary lessons -- the difficulty of balancing love and work as well as the acknowledgment that, as one of the song titles puts it, “Everyone’s a Little Bit Racist.”
Sawyer, who’s utterly captivating in voice and presence, also portrays Kate Monster’s rival, Lucy, a lounge singer with loose morals and an eye for Princeton. If he’s more than usually vulnerable to her tawdry charms, it’s because he’s worried that a serious relationship with Kate might dull his ambition and make him lose sight of his “purpose” -- a word that floods him with self-torturing fears each time it flashes on two TV monitors hanging on either side of the stage. Plus, Lucy is a shameless temptress, who wants little more from him than an unbridled roll in the hay.
The sexual antics, it should be noted, are rambunctiously pitched to a mature audience. Leave the kids at home so you can laugh without guilt and enjoy the marvelous expressivity of these puppets, which were conceived and designed by Rick Lyon, whose indebtedness to Jim Henson is lovingly apparent even in the racier bits.
The emotional truth of these plushy characters is reinforced by their human handlers, who manage to be there or not there as the situation requires. Director Jason Moore should be applauded for creating an onstage universe that seamlessly moves between the animate and the inanimate. The cast may not be the most memorable, but the sharp staging keeps anyone from dragging down the production’s overall level.
Set designer Anna Louizos captures Avenue Q in all its friendly grittiness. You might not want to live here after you turn 30, but you’ll fondly remember the camaraderie that helped you through your growing pains.
And that may be the powerful secret of this show, which turns the stress and strain of finding one’s place in the world into an occasion for unadulterated fun.
A longer version of this review was originally published on July 20, following its opening at the Spreckels Theatre in San Diego.
Where: Ahmanson Theatre, 135 N. Grand Ave., Los Angeles
When: 8 p.m. Tuesdays through Fridays, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 1 and 6:30 p.m. Sundays
Ends: Oct. 14
Price: $25 to $90
Contact: (213) 628-2772
Running time: 2 hours, 10 minutes