Meet Princeton. He's a typical recent liberal arts graduate: full of hope and dreams but not much practical experience—or money. So he's ready to fumble his way through the post-college years in an attempt to find his "purpose."
He's also a puppet.
Over the past decade, Avenue Q started as a little Off-Broadway piece about a naughty Sesame Street-like world, then went on to become a massive Broadway hit, with successful tours and an eventual return Off-Broadway, where it still plays.
Mixed Blood Theatre's engaging production of the musical, one of the first not directly affiliated with the original Avenue Q, gives the work a fresh coat of paint and even builds up the foundation a bit.
The play centers on Princeton and the rest of the puppet and human inhabitants of Avenue Q, a decidedly not-trendy New York City street. There, life is tough for the mostly under- or unemployed folks, who note in the opening song that "it sucks to be me." These include cute Kate Monster, a cheerful creature who wants to help her kind; closeted Republican investment banker Rod and his slacker roommate Nicky; therapist Christmas Eve and wannabe comedian Brian; and the superintendent, former TV star Gary Coleman.
There are plots running through this, especially the romance between Princeton and Kate and Rod's comical but touching attempts to come to grips with his sexuality. There are also lots of naughty puppet moments: These are modern, foul-mouthed creations who are interested in typical adult pursuits, including sex.
While it may have been the sight of puppets flipping the bird or having sex onstage that first drew attention to the show, it's the quality of the book (by Jeff Whitty) and the clever, tuneful songs (Robert Lopez and Jeff Marx) that have kept people coming back. "Educational" numbers like "Everybody's a Little Bit Racist" sit easily side by side with ones that explore a character's heart.
The new production scales back the piece from its Broadway/touring size. Top performances include Bonni Allen's dual role as puppet Kate and live-action temptress Lucy the Slut, and Seth Tucker as lost and confused Rod. While this is Princeton's journey (well played by Tom Reed), the story's emotional core really comes from these two characters.
Part of the show's fun has always been the technical achievement of animating the puppets in a full-scale musical. The work by choreographer Lauren Chapman and puppet consultant Michael Sommers (of Open Eye Figure Theatre) is top notch throughout, coming to fruition in a puppet dream ballet midway through. The brand-new puppets, crafted by Wayne Krefting and Maria McNamara, are brilliant.
For all the silly fun going on here, there is a heart at the center of Avenue Q, one that director Jack Reuler and the company are able to find. As I've grown older, I've found myself relating more and more to these characters. Mixed Blood has deepened that connection—and made the songs, story, and jokes fresh again.