When the creators of “Avenue Q” first set out to develop their musical, they described it as “Sesame Street” meets “Friends”, which eventually evolved into a sort of “Puppet Sex in the City”. They opened it in March of 2003 off-Broadway, then moved to Broadway four months later, where it enjoyed a six year run (then moving back in 2009 to off-Broadway, where it remains today). Along the way it earned a great deal of critical and popular acclaim, including Tonys for its book by Jeff Whitty, music and lyrics by Robert Lopez and Jeff Marx, and, in an almost unprecedented upset over a certain musical behemoth about a couple of witches, the most coveted award as Best Musical, which it surely deserved. In the right hands, a multi-tasking puppet-populated cast can create a wondrous, hysterically funny and bawdy piece of theater. The good news is that this production by the Lyric Stage Company is in extraordinarily capable hands.
After the cast opens with a deceptively sweet title song that knowingly references the theme song from “Sesame Street”, the real story begins with the residents of Avenue Q lamenting the sorry state of their lives in “It Sucks to Be Me”. It then segues to the arrival of wide-eyed recent college grad Princeton (John Ambrosino), looking for a career and a purpose, in the musical comedy tradition of “42nd Street”, “Thoroughly Modern Millie” and a slew of other such archetypes, as he sings, “What Do You Do with a BA in English?”. We next meet Rod (Ambrosino again), a closeted Republican investment banker, accused by his roommate Nicky (Phil Tayler) of ironing his underwear, in the song “If You Were Gay”. By the time we are introduced to aspiring stand-up comedian Brian (Harry McEnerny V) and his partner Christmas Eve (Jenna Lea Scott as a Japanese American therapist with two Masters degrees and no clients) we definitely know we’re not in Kansas anymore, in the outrageously politically incorrect number “Everyone’s a Little Bit Racist” (which she pronounces Ev'lyone’s a Ritter Bit Lacist”). Then there’s the reclusive porn-obsessed Trekkie Monster (Tayler again, singing “The Internet Is for Porn”), the building super who resembles former child star Gary Coleman (because he is, as played by Davron S. Monroe), kindergarten teacher Mrs. T (Elise Arsenault), and a couple of anti-Jiminy Cricket Bad News Bears (Arsenault and Tayler yet again). And then there’s kindergarten teaching assistant Kate Monster (Erica Spyres, who also plays Lucy the Slut, a buxom cabaret chanteuse), who wants to start a special school for monsters, and begins to fall for Princeton. She also has arguably the finest number in the show, “There’s a Fine, Fine Line” between love and a waste of time (between a lover and a friend, reality and pretend, fairy tale and a lie, what you wanted and what you got). But even she has her dark side, as she admits that at a wedding she “caught the bouquet…well, some little girl caught it, but she wasn’t very strong”. By the time the play ends, she has her “Monsterssori School”, and has matured enough to ask Princeton “can we take it one day at a time?”, after she’s tied up a plot thread or two by innocently dropping a penny from the Empire State Building. Along the way, the cast sings of “Schadenfreude” (happiness at the misery of others) and the impermanence of a few of their least favorite things, in “For Now” (in this updated version, they now replace the original “George Bush!” subsequently changed to “Fox News!”, here with a topical reference to a local celebrity).
Each of these performers pitches perfectly, as directed by Spiro Veloudos, puppet master with more than a few tricks up his sleeve. There’s a lot of funny felt, fur and fuzz on display, by Puppet Designer Rick Lyon. The scenic design by Kathryn Kawecki, an homage to “Sesame Street” but grittier, sets just the right tone. The Puppetry Instruction and Coaching by Jonathan Little and Roxanna Myhrum has really paid off. The actors with no prior puppeteer experience come off like pros. Ilyse Robbins’ choreography is outstanding. If there’s a nit to pick, it might be that the physical configuration of the theater, with its two side seating sections to which the cast frequently plays, sometimes exposes the mechanics of puppet manipulation, but that’s hardly much of a distraction.
As a group conversation concludes, “maybe you’ll never find your purpose; lots of people don’t, but then I don’t know why I’m even alive…well, who does, really?”. And, as Princeton notes in the final line of the play: “Everything in life is only for now”. He could just as easily have paraphrased one of the other morals of the play, given how much fun the cast itself seems to be having: when you make others laugh, you can’t help laughing yourself.