Television, that much-maligned medium, has been a vehicle for shared experiences. Talk to older folks and they all remember Lucille Ball stuffing chocolates from the conveyer belt into her mouth. For audiences born since 1965 everyone has seen a thousand hours of Sesame Street, even more than of The Brady Bunch. Decades later the lessons that Sesame Street fostered linger on, and not just silent vowels. The ethnically diverse street of an inner-city neighborhood, complete with puppets, became a national template, replacing the white bread suburbs of Leave It to Beaver.
Harder to sustain, however, is the cheery, upbeat Public Broadcasting optimism about just how special you are and how everything in the world is open to your honest effort. Hey, kids, meet rejection, failure and loneliness, via Robert Lopez, Jeff Marx and Jeff Whitty’s musical Avenue Q, the summer production from the Covey Theatre Company at the Mulroy Civic Center’s BeVard Theater. The surprise winner of the 2004 Tony Award, Avenue Q is a one-of-a-kind show, and it’s not just because of those puppets.
Ever since pop culture discovered post-modernism more than two decades ago, spoofs and parodies of well-established vehicles, plays, movies and TV have been rampant. But this is different. Avenue Q does not so much parody Sesame Street as enter into dialogue with it. Composer-lyricist Marx worked for Sesame Street and several members of the original cast performed on the show, and later returned to it. In some ways, Avenue Q is more homage than spoof. The thesis appears to be not so much that the PBS show does not hold up as much as a mere human being—or their puppet equivalents—can’t hold up to the promise of it.
Musically, Lopez and Marx’s songs speak in the jaunty Sesame Street idiom. In bringing the show to the BeVard, not an ideal venue for musicals, the Covey troupe has ensconced six players in the right balcony, led by double Syracuse Area Live Theater (SALT) winner Bridget Moriarty and including such luminaries as Jeff Unaitis on the second keyboard. This is an assurance that the songs pack more wallop than the dialogue, trenchant as it may be. Musical numbers such as “What Do You Do with a B.A. in English?” and even more, “It Sucks to be Me,” are bitterly effective. The songs contribute to Avenue Q’s unique achievement—of making pathos comic.
Avenue Q does not violate Sesame Street’s copyright restrictions, which is a good thing because of some rough language and a much-discussed steamy sequence of love-making (with puppets). Makes no difference; we make the connections easily. There are 11 puppet characters and three fully human ones who interact, just as they did on the PBS series. Easiest to connect is gravel-voiced obsessive Trekkie Monster (Josh Taylor), who clamors for Internet porn instead of cookies. Similarly, the roommates Rod (David Cotter) and Nicky (Rob Lescarbeau) clearly evoke Bert and Ernie, only here their affection for one another is out of the closet.
The two characters who become the love interest are a regular guy puppet, Princeton (Garrett Heater), and a girl from some fur-covered, discriminated-against group, Kate Monster (Sara Weiler), from the Trekkie Monster family. Other characters fly beyond any Sesame Street convention, such as the terrible-tempered school administrator Mrs. Thistletwat (Bethany Daniluk) or the in-your-face aggression of Lucy the Slut (Jodie Baum).
Along with the 11 puppets, some single-rod, some double (requiring two handlers), Covey Theatre has given Avenue Q a professional gloss with two other expenditures. One is a large, high-definition screen with graphics from the original production, like a dotted-line medical readout of Lucy that also traces the outline of her ample bosom. The second is a huge, wooden facade of an urban scene, complete with doors that slam and windows that can be reached through behind-the-scene ladders. Although not credited in the program, the entire frame was purchased from an earlier production in Rhinebeck.
Action begins when Princeton, a recent college graduate, goes to the city hoping to find a purpose in his life, as soon as he can locate an apartment and a job. He has no luck with Avenue A and can’t find a place until he gets to Avenue Q, the deflating hidden message in the title. There he meets Kate and Trekkie, Rod and Nicky, as well as a couple who are thinking of getting married, despite cultural differences. Brian (Josh Mele) is an excruciatingly awful Jewish comedian, whose loudmouth routines fall flat despite the actor’s well-known comedic abilities. It’s like having a singer always hit the wrong notes. His equally loud fiancée, Christmas Eve (Sunny Hernandez) is Japanese; we can tell from the Madame Butterfly knitting needles in her black wig. Christmas is supposed to be a therapist, but given her bossy demeanor we’re not surprised she has zero patients.
Kate announces that her dream or purpose is to open a special school for her minority group, “people of fur,” to be called the Monstersori. Clueless, Princeton complains that such a school would discriminate against non-monsters, or reverse discriminate. Instead of taking the high-minded Sesame Street line of accepting difference, or diversity is strength, the denizens of Avenue Q shrug the whole thing off with the number, “Everyone’s a Little Bit Racist.”
Not quite fitting into the plot is a superintendent named Gary Coleman (Karin Franklin-King), who manages a run-down Avenue Q property. The real Gary Coleman was alive when the show opened, although he never played the role himself and frequently threatened to sue. Sesame Street, of course, often featured cameos from celebrities, and Lena Horne actually made reciting the alphabet exciting. At the time Avenue Q opened, Coleman had become a bitter joke, a once-promising and charming child actor, from the 1980s sitcom Diff’rent Strokes, who never quite grew up but was left with continuing indignities. One of the songs for the Avenue Q Gary is “Schadenfreude,” about taking pleasure from the misfortune of others.
Although she does not fit tightly into the plot, Jodie Baum’s character, Lucy the Slut, establishes a dominating presence when she shows up at the café where Brian’s gags are falling flat. Lucy storms in with a hot number, “Special,” and fires up all the boys. In a show with more than a dozen strong performers, Baum has a way of bending the spotlight to her character.
Co-directors Susan Blumer and Garrett Heater have done a hundred things right with this tricky and complex show. Among them is the strong casting, with adorable Sara Weiler as Kate. We’re not used to seeing Heater as a romantic leading man or a singer, but he’s the right man for the job. Rob Lescarbeau and David Cotter deliver more than they have been credited with here.
Anticipation has been running high for this area premiere of Avenue Q,
and the Covey Theatre has already scheduled an extra performance for
Thursday, July 19, 8 p.m. This week’s final shows on Friday, July 20,
and Saturday, July 21, have already sold out.