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Review: A Riotous 'Avenue Q' at Theatre Three

by Jerome Weeks 9 Jul 2012 4:49 PM

Yes, the puppets are naughty. Yes, it’s an adult spoof of Sesame Street. But why Avenue Q works so well – and works so well in Theatre 3’s basement space – is about more than just goggle eyes and gay jokes.


Michael Robinson and James Chandler as Nicky and Denise Lee as Gary Coleman in Avenue Q

  • FrontRow review

The success of Avenue Q at Theatre Three is not just about the raunchy puppets.

No, really.

Though the raunchy puppets are pretty funny.

On Broadway in 2004, Avenue Q beat Wicked to win the best musical Tony Award, a case of the small-budget, decidedly-non-family-friendly show winning over the big-budget, family-friendly blockbuster. Needless to say, that was a surprise. Many of the Tony voters are out here in Flyover Country — they’re the touring presenters. Which is why the shows that win the best musical award are often the ones the Middle America venues hope will tour well: big, flashy, family-friendly shows. Which Avenue Q  — as kind of South Park Moves in with Bert and Ernie and Really Starts to Party — definitely isn’t.

So why did it win? I’ll get to that. Considering the show’s irreverent nature, presenting Avenue Q in Theatre Too’s basement space actually suits its sensibility and scale more than a grand, Broadway touring house like the Winspear did. I mean, it’s a puppet show, a grandchild of Punch and Judy. It has an irreverent, mocking humor that sends up childhood icons. Of course, it’d fit a space so intimate everything is essentially ‘in your face,’ a space that feels like a cleaner version of an off-off-Broadway cellar-theater.

But that doesn’t mean compressing the musical into Theatre Too isn’t an achievement.

Avenue Q is something of a Generation X rom-com dressed up as a Sesame Street send-up. Young Princeton has his freshly useless B.A. in English and comes to the city looking for work. He settles in an apartment in an affordable neighborhood (translation: gritty, urban, racially mixed), but it’s one that still has friendly people, including the teacher’s assistant Kate Monster and a no-longer-so-famous Gary Coleman (yes, the late TV actor, played by Denise Lee) who’s the apartment building’s super. What follows are the dating-and-getting-wasted scene, the finding-an-awful-job scene, the in-the-closet roomie scene and the advocacy-of-internet-porn scene.

You get the picture. It’s another Jonah Hill/Seth Rogen R-rated comedy in which a young man tries to find his purpose and/or true love, but this particular movie has brighter colors and characters who have only four fingers.

Along the way, creators Robert Lopez and Jeff Marx do a terrific job of spoofing children’s-television-style songs while crafting just straight-ahead, naughty r&b (You Can Be As Loud as the Hell You Want (When You’re Makin’ Love) and a sob-sister ballad (There’s a Fine, Fine Line). But it’s the essential staging technique of their show — beyond using kids’ puppets to tell an adult story — that’s  a stroke of genius: They make the puppeteers part of the action.

Thus, most of the puppet characters have a double focus. We see the grinning, goggle-eyed piece of felt being manipulated, and we see the grinning, not-so-goggle-eyed person who’s manipulating it and voicing it. It’s an obvious enough notion — like ‘violating the fourth wall’ — but it produces this fresh, heightened effect. Each puppet becomes a kind of mini-chorus, its emotions and energy boosted by this chiming human face right next to it. Puppets are like cartoons — they’re about energy and motion and color — and the human participants amp up the energy while, yes, adding a touch of the semi-human.

And that, I maintain, is why audiences — whether they know it or not — get such a kick out of Avenue Q.

OK, yes. The puppet sex does play a part in that, too.

Though this technique may look like child’s play — goofing around with funny voices and exaggerated expressions — several puppeteers handle and voice multiple characters. Which means director Michael Serrecchia had to work out a choreographed (and tightly spaced) ‘dance of the drunken puppets.’ And I don’t think scene designer Jac Alder’s achievement has been fully appreciated: He collapsed what was, in effect, a two-and-a-half-story-tall set into Theatre Too’s low-ceilinged dimensions — while keeping all of the doors, windows, fold-out and pop-up sections intact. The set becomes its own jac-in-the-box entertainment.

Add puppeteer Michael Robinson’s three dozen creations and several high-energy performances by Lee and the perfectly Bert-voiced James Chandler, and Theatre Too has a funny, bawdy, little show that’s likely to goggle its eyes, wave its arms and run for a long while.