Left Turn at Sesame Street
at State Theatre through January 13
It is a decent rule of thumb that the times of our lives when we take ourselves most seriously align nicely with our episodes of greatest preposterousness. We'll take a mulligan on the grandiosity of adolescence (the teenage brain is borderline sociopathic, or so I'm told), but the post-college stretch of our early 20s often features its fair share of self-importance and inflated self-regard; that is until, for so many of us, life takes aim with its steel-toed boot and delivers a swift kick in the ass.
Which is what Avenue Q is all about. At its core, it's a parody of Sesame Street that applies the Children's Television Workshop formula of puppets and song to the existential miasma of the post-college urbanite. The action begins with the puppet Princeton (Robert McClure, holding his half-body-sized proxy) arriving in Manhattan, where he quickly learns that his B.A. in English will deliver little in the way of remuneration, and that instead of moving into digs, say, in the West Village, he's off to Alphabet City (albeit on a nonexistent street, but you get the idea).
Of course there are compensations, initially in the form of neighbor Kate Monster (Kelli Sawyer), a kindergarten teacher's assistant, failed comedian Brian (Cole Porter), and insulting stereotype Asian wife Christmas Eve (Jennie Kwan). The primary early theme develops in the bopping strains of what could serve as a signature tune: "It Sucks to Be Me."
By this point, on opening night it was abundantly clear that my '70s childhood and '90s young adulthood had been fused with clinical precision to churning pop music (with occasional old-timey undertones). This show even resolves a beguiling longtime mystery via Bert and Ernie stand-ins Rod (McClure) and Nicky (David Benoit). In the early going Nicky sings to the closeted Rod, "If you were gay, that'd be OK.... But I'm not gay." (So they weren't a couple. Interesting.)
The proceedings then veer off into gleefully funny transgression. Cookie Monster surrogate Trekkie Monster (Benoit) leads the onanistic "The Internet Is for Porn," while a misunderstanding between Princeton and Kate Monster sparks the singsong "Everyone's a Little Bit Racist." These sequences are cheap and silly, as intended, but could never have been delivered with such alacrity without first sourcing the original CTW brand of happy frankness.
In other words, there's nothing here that lives up to "C Is for Cookie," but this explosion of youth's illusions could never have happened without Cookie Monster's subversive spirit. By the time Princeton and Kate Monster hit the sheets (abetted by Bear Family knock-offs who advocate some weird form of nihilistic alcoholism) for a one-night stand, you get a nicely squishy sense of the underside of all those hours spent in the care of PBS.
But I digress. The second half sees Ernie—sorry—Nicky panhandling on the street, and Princeton involved in a fussy subplot about raising money for Kate Monster's quixotic vision that leads to a soggy-cracker sequence in which the cast hits up the audience for money (and finds how little response such an act engenders in Minnesota). But there's little to derail an overall momentum of charm and subtext.
By the end, the theme is about how we grow up and encounter such things as failure, thwarted optimism, and oral sex (now there's a triumvirate) while still seeing the world through the energized, imaginative, and observant eyes of our childhood selves. One could argue that Avenue Q is about the destruction of our sunny little selves under the dark clouds of adulthood, but dig a little deeper. Before the lights go out, we're dealing with the mutability of all things—including our selves, our illusions, and the sense that we've ever figured anything out.
Which is extremely grown-up, as far as it goes, mixed with the tonic of two-plus hours that are about as funny and entertaining as anything you'll come across. Preposterous? Yes, just like the big picture.
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