They are cute and fuzzy — and can cuss like sailors.
The characters of Avenue Q, a big Broadway hit back in 2003 that is now proving to be a winner in regional and community theaters, are mostly puppets. But don’t go looking for a stroll down Sesame Street in the hilarious production of this show that opened at Stage West last week, or you will find yourself walking down a blind alley.
Because this learning-about-life-through-puppets musical has a lot of vocabulary words that Bert and Ernie would never teach us.
Despite its venue, this show is not really a Stage West production. It arrives intact (lock, stock and puppets) from Dallas’s Theatre Three, where it ran for months in that house’s basement space, Theatre Too. So this cast, directed by Michael Serrecchia, was polished long before the curtain went up at Stage West.
Avenue Q deals with the lives of a group of 20-somethings living on the edge of poverty in Manhattan (think of it as a musical version of Friends where the characters are not rich and gorgeous). They are working out issues of love and employment, but, above all, they are seeking a meaning in life, whether they all know it or not.
We meet Princeton (Matt Purvis), a wide-eyed innocent in the big city; Kate (Megan Kelly Bates), a would-be school teacher who is Preston’s love interest and a “monster” (but in a good way); Brian (Chester Maple) and Christmas Eve (Olivia de Guzman Emile), two of the non-puppets in the cast who are an aspiring comedian and his wife, who is not exactly the best therapist in town; Rod (also Purvis), a closeted gay banker, and his goofy roommate, Nicky (James Chandler); Trekkie Monster (Chandler and Michael Robinson), the largest and most outlandish of the puppets who is a master of inappropriate behavior; and, of course, Gary Coleman (M. Denise Lee), as well as several other puppets manipulated by these same players.
Their interactions and songs sometimes turn a bit blue, but at the core of this musical is an old-fashioned boy-meets-girl story and a quest for a purpose in life. So it simultaneously celebrates and spoofs the American Musical Theater, allowing audiences to engage it as seriously or as superficially as they like.
It is also easy to enjoy this show because it is so sweet and charming, with its rough edges (we’re talking puppet sex here, folks) preventing it from becoming cloying. The songs, by Book of Mormon co-creator Robert Lopez and Jeff Marx, are great fun. All of the acting and singing is first-rate, and so balanced that it would not be fair to single anyone out. Jason Domm’s set succeeds both aesthetically and practically. And the show makes good use of a few short, well-placed pieces of animation.
The only trick about this show is getting used to separating the puppets from the actors carrying them. At the outset, it just seems there are actors doing a show while walking around with puppets on their hands. Then, gradually, you are likely to start concentrating on the puppets more than their handlers. But throughout the show, your attention will probably shift between the actors and the puppets. This would seem to be annoying, but it instead gives you multiple ways to engage the material.
So the points of entry may vary from patron to patron. But if you allow this show to manipulate you as adroitly as it does its puppets, you are bound to enjoy this foulmouthed (but warmhearted) musical.