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Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Avenue Q at the Fox: 'Street' smarts

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(Photos by Carol Rosegg)

The Fox Theatre seemed to sport a particularly deep shade of gray as we took our seats with younger co-workers Tuesday evening for the opening-night performance of Avenue Q, the three-time Tony Award winner (including Best Musical) that premiered in 2003. Not that an older audience is a rare thing for the Broadway Across America series, which brings the classics of the Great White Way to Atlanta along with some more recent fare.

But considering Avenue Q’s adult subject matter — an R-rated send-up of Rent delivered with an ironic cuteness a la "Sesame Street" — we figured there might be almost as many piercings as granny glasses. So when our heads cocked at the first swear word, which shot out from the performers before the seats could warm up, it became immediately apparent that this wasn’t your father’s musical — or your grandfather’s for that matter — and the contrast of the audience became clear right away. For as many hoots and hollers that rang out, there was just as much of a still silence. By intermission, we could see the younger guests laughing hysterically. The older ones looked at each other, stunned; some left.

They missed out.

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This touring company proved how Avenue Q could play with the musical-theater form and make it fun and enjoyable for a completely new generation. It was an almost mesmerizing combination of comedy, singing and, best of all, puppetry. The song titles alone should have given fair warning. “It Sucks to Be Me,” “If You Were Gay,” “Everyone’s a Little Bit Racist, “The Internet Is for Porn” and “You Can Be as Loud as the Hell You Want (When You’re Makin’ Love)” were a few of the first-act treats, tapping into twenty- and thirtysomething angst — unemployment, closet homosexuality, racism, modern sexuality — in a way that few musicals dared try.Cast members split up into two basic groups of characters living toward the end of the line of Manhattan’s Alphabet City: regular folks, and the “monsters,” the latter of whom were puppets (some might say “Muppets”), with the performers mirroring their hand-held characters’ performances. Sometimes they pulled double-duty, like Kelli Sawyer, who alternated between lovelorn schoolteacher's helper Kate Monster and her romantic rival, “Girls Gone Wild” poster girl, Lucy. How these performers were able to make their puppets come alive while performing for the audience, and then pitch new voices for new characters within a given scene, was one of the minor miracles of the production.

The set was deceptively simple. The two-story tenement, a one-time New Yorker friend remarked, looked exactly like the place where she lived. Windows and doors served as mini-performance spaces, with monsters and regular folk coming and going at a frenzied clip. Dueling screens drop down from the rafters offering little lessons. The plot has a decided air of Rent (make that La Boheme) about it, as newcomer Princeton (Robert McClure) shows up looking for his purpose in life, and room, rented by the landlord Gary Coleman (Carla Renata). Yes, that Gary Coleman, which serves as a running joke that never grows old. He meets Mimi, er, Kate Monster, and the two negotiate the trials of mating and dating under the noses of their neighbors. There’s the engaged couple, the Asian Christmas Eve (Angela Ai) and aspiring comic Brian (Cole Porter); two male roommates, Nicky (David Benoit) and Rod (McClure, again), one of whom thinks, fears, he’s gay; and the shut-in Trekkie Monster (Benoit).

Then there are the Bad Idea Bears (Benoit, Minglie Chen), who practically steal the show with their constant reminders of all the stupid things we do when we’re young. When Princeton and Kate Monster take their date to a nightclub, the Bad Idea Bears are there to encourage every wrong decision, but in squeaky, high-pitched chirping that would make Jim Henson proud (or ashamed). As Kate downs another Long Island Iced Tea, one Bear coos, “Take her ho-o-o-me. She’s wasted!” Which leads to a musical number that probably sent half the gray hairs scrambling for their parking-valet stubs at intermission.

The beauty and charm of Avenue Q is the ironic use of a kid-friendly construct to deliver all the harsh realities of adulthood. It’s a daring conceit to take "Sesame Street" and all but bastardize it, but creators Robert Lopez and Jeff Marx, working from fellow Tony winner Jeff Whitty’s book, take the dare and run with it. Their ultimate message is one often lost on the young, that as bad as they have it, there are others who have it far worse, and that progression from self-absorption to seeing the bigger picture is but one path out of misery. That resolution comes just as Avenue Q’s novelty starts to wear off; it’s almost perfectly timed. As is this production, which arrives just in time as another batch of college graduates prepares for commencement, and a very, very uncertain future. For two hours, at least, it won’t suck to be you.

Unless, of course, you learned that lesson about four decades ago, and don't need reminding. As Princeton sings in the final line of the music, "Everything in life is only for now." Catch Avenue Q while you can; it's only temporary. Like life, it's only temporary.

Here's one of a bazillion clips available …

[kml_flashembed movie="http://www.youtube.com/v/PJCU4xf5IJE" width="425" height="350" wmode="transparent" /]

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