by Margaret Croyden
Margaret Croyden is a theater reviewer and essayist for the New York Theatre Wire.
"Avenue Q" -- a sexed-up Sesame Street
Music and Lyrics by Robert Lopez and Jeff Marx
Book by Jeff Whitty; Directed by Jason Moore; Puppets by Rick Lyon
Golden Theater, West 45 Street
Online ticketing: www.telecharge.com
Reviewed August 31, 2003 by Margaret Croyden
"Avenue Q" has been hailed as the first big hit of the season, a season that has started in the middle of the summer, when it is very hard to have a hit. "Avenue Q " is a lively musical comedy about the hip-hop generation and all that this entails. A group of young people live on Avenue Q, and each is a type with a story to tell. And unto the bargain that story is sung and dramatized by characters manipulating their puppets right out in the open. No shadow play here. The puppets are hand held and strings are pulled right in front of us.
So what have we got? We've got a raunchy, supposedly comic, supposedly hip musical about types (actually stereotypes) that you find in New York, or any big city. There are the usual suspects: gays, blacks, racists, feminists, Asians, college dropouts, interracial couples, and sex--lots of sex. And this motley group do numbers that try to satirize contemporary issues, songs intended to be witty, even fashionable like "Everyone's a Little Racist," "If You Were Gay," "I'm not Wearing Underwear Today," "The Internet is for Porn," and some self-depreciating numbers about their own personality. All of which may be chic in the mind of the creators, but more often the numbers are offensive rather than clever. Still the audience seems to love all the racket and a racket it is--loud, loud, loud, as is the rule for musicals these days. Shouting rather than singing seems to be a style.
So what's unusual about all this? Nothing. It is all a replay of "Rent" with sesame street puppets thrown in. The characters are what you expect: a nice college boy meets a nice girl, boy loses girl, boy gets girl; a failed, fat comedian (Jewish of course) marries the Asian landlady who makes hash of the English language; a prostitute tries to snare the college student; a gay comes out of the closet; a dirty old man loves porn on the Internet, and so forth. All have their special songs and most of them carry their puppets around and act with them and for them.
That the characters in the show act with various puppets may be, its only claim for originality. However for me, the puppets were annoying. First of all many of them are much too cute (there are one or two exceptions) and though they are handled magnificently, they are distracting. Who do you look at, the actor or the puppet? Where does your concentration go ? But more important, there is a deplorable juvenile attitude throughout the show. These are not lovable kids, although they try; they are just too dumb to be interesting. And if they represent American youth--this is indeed a pity. Most of the dialogue is composed of one liners coupled with dirty songs. And in this ambiance it was only logical that the puppets should be manipulated to enact a daring scene of fornication with all its detailed positions. Though expertly handled, the scene was vulgar all the same. In fact in its drive to be hip, the writers resort too often to low comedy that demonstrates only too clearly a failure of the imagination. Nevertheless the audience loved the show. All of it.
But credit is due to the actor-puppeteers. Clearly they are a gifted bunch of people. Manipulating the puppets, acting several roles, singing and moving, they perform with ease and professionalism. Stephanie D'Abruzzo and John Tartaglia, the leads, are experienced puppeteers who handle each role beautifully.
If you are interested in puppets and a bawdy irreverent show, this may be your choice. For a serious theatergoer who would like to see a play or a musical about the real problems of youth, "Avenue Q" would not be your thing. [Croyden]
Margaret Croyden's latest book, "Conversations With Peter Brook, 1970-2000," is published by Farrar Straus and Giroux.
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