Theater Review: Where’s Avenue Q? – Take a Right on Easy Street

by Bill Marx

Avenue Q, though March 23 at the Colonial Theatre, Boston, MA.
Music and lyrics by Robert Lopez and Jeff Marx, book by Jeff Whitty. Based on an original concept by Lopez and Marx. Directed by Jason Moore.

Puppets and people warbling in Avenue Q
Puppets and people warbling up a storm in the touring production of Avenue Q

Where is Avenue Q? The street of dirty-minded puppets sits at a safe distance between Sesame Street and South Park, lightly lampooning the instructional bromides of the former while drawing on the obscenity of the latter without any of its savagely tasteless satire. In other words, Avenue Q lies smack dab at the center of Broadway strike-goldville, a successful attempt to cater to younger audiences while making the oldsters feel hip at the same time: olde sentimentality is spruced up with carefully calculated touches of lowbrow irreverence, a little glimmer of MTV among the footlights.

The show’s advertisement sums up the adolescent approach: “60% adult material, 40% rubber foam.” Not too adult, of course: overgrown cookie monsters and other puppet retreads from Sesame Street and human residents sing about how much they adore porn, pay robust homage to the Internet and masturbation, and warble tunes with ‘shocking’ titles such as “It Sucks to be Me” and “Everyone is a Little Bit Racist.”

The gimmick, worked with sadistic relentlessness over two hours, is to make showbiz hay with the silly hilarity generated by the sight of marionettes saying nasty things and making mad whoopee. The device wears thin because Avenue Q’s creators thump the same dumb punch lines without, a la South Park, moving to inspired extremes or making a discomforting point; they don’t use the imaginative freedom offered by puppets to venture into fresher, friskier territory than jokes about beating off and Canadian pussy.

The result is that Avenue Q is not 60% adult but 90% addled adolescent: a slick puppet show ground out by an unimaginative child who has an eye on the mainstream market. The plot centers on a puppet named Princeton, a recent college graduate who moves to Avenue Q in search of a job, a purpose in life, and some sex. The first two take time, but a hot night of screwing a female puppet, the demure Kate Monster, comes along quickly, fueled by alcoholic drinks encouraged by the Bad Idea Bears, who are amusing at first but like all the show’s good ideas are wrung out from overuse.

The proceedings chug down predictably antique rails: boy puppet schtupps girl puppet, boy loses girl because he is afraid of marriage, boy schtupps Lucy the Slut puppet, and boy redeems himself with the nice girl puppet. Puppet pregnancy and abortion would have been too much, I guess.

Other puppet characters include a repressed gay Republican named Rod, the porn-loving Trekkie Monster, and a goofball named Nicky. The humans include former child star Gary Coleman, played by Carla Renata, who is the building’s superintendent, a wanna-be comedian and his girl friend, Christmas Tree. The performers manipulate the puppets with admirable skill, dance with verve, and sing Robert Lopez and Jeff Marx’s mushy soft rock songs with panache, but unless watching marionettes with hearts of gold behaving not all that badly is your idea of a fun night out, Avenue Q is the road to nowhere.

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