Friday, November 28, 2008

Theater review: 'Avenue Q': Call it 'Sesame Street' with attitude

By Hap Erstein

As the snarky revue Forbidden Broadway puts it in song, to succeed these days in the New York theater, “You gotta have a puppet.” Sure, The Lion King and Little Shop of Horrors feature human-powered cloth characters, but the show that most relies on puppets is the very welcome, very adult take-off on children’s television, Avenue Q.

An unexpected hit on Broadway and an even bigger surprise winner of the best musical Tony Award four years ago, this lesson-heavy show currently at the Kravis Center through Sunday teaches us that clever writing and talented performers trump high-tech spectacle, box-office names and movie retreads every time.

Written and originally performed by a brash team of Sesame Street alumni, Avenue Q sings in infectious, bouncy melodies about the harsher realities of life that never quite made it onto the public television series.

Rookie Broadway composers Robert Lopez and Jeff Marx blithely express our collective inner thoughts with such chipper ditties as Everyone’s a Little Bit Racist and The Internet is for Porn. And it would be hard not to relate to that perky anthem of misery, It Sucks to Be Me, almost as hard as keeping the tune from lodging in your brain.

Equal parts sweet and subversive, Avenue Q understands that a puppet can get away with uncensored thoughts and language much more easily than can humans. The cast, both puppet and human, co-exist in a seedy New York neighborhood, welcoming new arrival Princeton (voiced and manipulated by Robert McClure), an unemployable recent liberal arts graduate searching for his purpose in life.

That quest will be duplicated by the rest of the community — kindergarten teaching assistant Kate Monster (Anika Larsen), who quickly develops a crush on Princeton; self-denying gay roommates Rod and Nicky (think of Bert and Ernie with extra hang-ups); hopeless stand-up comic wannabe Brian (Cole Porter, no really that’s his name) and his Asian psychologist bride-to-be Christmas Eve (Sala Iwamatsu); porn-obsessed Trekkie Monster and, in one of the nuttier inspirations of book writer Jeff Whitty, Diffr’nt Strokes former child star Gary Coleman (Danielle K. Thomas), reduced to becoming an apartment superintendent when his show-biz fortunes waned.

The puppeteers are every bit as adept as the show’s original Broadway cast. They make no attempt to hide themselves, yet it is refreshing how quickly we focus on the puppets and buy into their emotionally expressive personas. Factor in Anna Louizos' cheery tenement set design and Lopez’s jaunty animation segments, and you have a very hip evening of musical theater.

If there is a drawback, it is that the Kravis Center’s Dreyfoos Hall is really too cavernous for this intimate show. Avenue Q plays many similar-sized or larger venues — it moves on to The Broward Center in January, for instance. But it really cries out for an auditorium on the scale of the much-missed Royal Poinciana Playhouse.

AVENUE Q: Kravis Center's Dreyfoos Hall, 701 Okeechobee Blvd., West Palm Beach. Through Sunday, Nov. 30. Tickets: $25-$82. Call: (561) 832-7469 0r (800) 572-8471.

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