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Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Avenue Q

Although I love Broadway musicals and grew up watching Sesame Street, I was hesitant to watch Avenue Q since I really could not fathom how musical theater could be portrayed well by puppets. I envisioned it to be a full-blown puppet show complete with high-pitched sing-song voices and Muppets-esque storylines. Boy was I wrong! And am I ever glad that Jeff talked us into watching the show.

In a nutshell, Avenue Q is about a struggling group of twenty-somethings who live in an apartment complex in a rundown but very affordable outer borough of New York – right on Avenue Q. The cast of puppet characters are lead by Princeton, a recent graduate who struggles to make ends meet as he tries to find his “purpose” in life; Kate Monster, a homely teaching assistant who one day dreams of opening her own school; Rod, a stoic investment banker who is in denial about coming out of the closet and who harbors a secret crush on his straight roommate, Nicky; Nicky, on the other hand, is an aimless, happy-go-lucky guy with no real sense of direction in life. Then there’s Lucy the Slut, a vampy nightclub singer who comes between Princeton and Kate's budding romance. And finally, there’s Trekkie Monster, the upstairs weirdo who surfs the internet all day for porn.

As for the human characters, there is Gary Coleman (yes, the Gary Coleman), a down on his luck former child actor who now manages the building; Rob, a comedian who can’t get a decent job and has fears of commitment; and his fiancée, Christmas Eve, a Japanese therapist with two masters degrees but no patients to work with.

It does parody Sesame Street in using cartoons, songs and short skits (shown on the monitor) to teach lessons - and of course there are the puppets... But the similarities end there. The story revolves around these 9 characters as they share their life drama on stage. It’s quite fascinating watching the human characters interact with their puppet co-stars – rather seamlessly done as there are times when you forget which actors are real and which ones are inanimate. The performers displayed an amazing balancing act as they danced, sang, acted and worked with the puppets. The puppeteers were clearly visible working their puppets the whole time – but rather than being distracting, their presence actually heightens the actions and expressions the puppets try to portray.

Avenue Q can be described in three words: fresh, smart and feisty. It gets away with being raunchy and risqué as it tackles such controversial issues like racism, homosexuality, relationships (and one night stands), pornography, careers, and how sometimes it’s ok to take pleasure at the expense of someone’s pain. Because most of the characters are puppets, they manage being brutally honest without appearing crass and impudent. It is definitely an R-rated version of Sesame Street complete with full frontal puppet nudity. But even as they manage to shock and poke fun at such sensitive issues, even breaking into song about such taboo topics – they do so without triviliazing them or without resorting to bawdy slapstick routines.

The brilliant writers of Avenue Q sticks to making the audience laugh at the issues by drawing on irrefutable truths. For example, Kate and Princeton’s discussion about racism (and their singing “Everybody’s a Little Bit Racist”) – is hilarious because there’s some truth to it – and we know it. No one can claim to be a total non-racist – because we live in a society where stereotypes and assumptions are everywhere. It’s human nature to have opinions and sometimes those opinions may stem from being prejudiced. It’s not wrong … it’s just how it is. It becomes wrong when you perpetuate it and start acting on it. But as Kate and Princeton sing and dance to the idea that everyone is a little bit racist, everyone in the audience finds it funny because we all know what that means – we’ve all been there and done that. It’s funny because it’s sort of, kind of true.

Avenue Q is a refreshing second look at life today and the struggles that many of us are facing. I am sure every person who has seen it can find themselves relating in some way to the angst, hopes, struggles and dreams of at least one of the characters. And as the play ends, there is no magic wand that makes each one’s life instantly better … since after all it is a story about real life – and so the message is, we make do with where we are for now, discover ourselves and our purpose in the process, get by with the help of friends and just take it one day at a time.


jol said...

Never really like puppet shows but your review of Avenue Q has aroused my curiosity. Maybe worth watching after all!

jencc said...

there's going to be a rerun in december here in manila. will try to catch that!

leslie Ty said...

hi jo!

i was able to catch avenue q in london n i really love it!!! =) can you believe i cried when kate monster was signing "there's a fine fine line between love and a waste of time" =) it's sooo my song!