A LONG WAY FROM SESAME STREET Kerri Brackin, Nicky, Rod, and DiRoma.
With Douglas Adams dead, where have we to turn for quirkily unconventional questions about life, the universe, and everything? A helpful and cheering recourse, if woefully juvenile at times, is the musical Avenue Q. It’s at through the Providence Performing Arts Center through October 25.
The widespread appeal of its questions, answered or not, is indicated by its Tony for Best Musical after its 2001 Broadway opening and also by making a splash in London’s West End and Las Vegas, plus Australia this year.
Such popularity can indicate inoffensiveness to the point of irrelevance, and that might be the suspicion here, especially with a show that got its inspiration from the innocent kids’ program Sesame Street. Avenue Q was originally performed by former Sesame Street puppeteers. The attempt was basically to take the template of curiosity that made the children’s show so beloved and apply it to the world of grown-up kids — twenty- and thirtysomethings.
Full puppet nudity. Puppet sex. Themes of racism, drugs, homosexuality. All are taken on. The executives of the Children’s Television Workshop, which created the long-lived show — 40 years old this year — must still be lying down with cold compresses on their heads.
The setting is a generic residential street in an outer borough of New York City, complete with stoops and trash cans. The opening song, “It Sucks To Be Me,” is joined in by the cast, and the collective whine pretty much becomes the show’s anthem. Princeton (Brent Michael DiRoma), with his freshly printed BA in English, laments, “I can’t pay the bills yet/’Cause I have no skills yet/The world is a big scary place.” Later singing “Purpose,” he searches for meaning in his life, hopeful if ill-prepared. His dire prospects are signaled by finding that Gary Coleman (Nigel Jamaal Clark), the former child celebrity whose parents stole his money, is the superintendent of his new apartment building.
Other characters have other problems. Rod (also DiRoma) is a closeted gay investment banker with a crush on his roommate Nicky (Jason Heymann) — no, the potential of the Bert and Ernie relationship isn’t neglected. The issue of racial prejudice is brought in with Kate Monster (Jacqueline Grabois) and Trekkie Monster (Heymann), fur standing in for dark skin. Kate is a kindergarten teaching assistant who has a crush on Prince-ton and also dreams of opening a school where monster children can feel safe. But the issue is made less threatening with everybody singing “Everyone’s a Little Bit Racist.” The strongest social stand taken in Avenue Q is with the funniest song of the show, “The Internet Is For Porn,” amplified by Trekkie Monster’s Cookie Monster enthusiasm.
Including the ensemble, there are a dozen actors in the cast, but only seven do most of the work. Two characters who don’t have puppets on their hands are Brian (Tim Kornblum), out of work as a comedian and out of college for a decade, and his girlfriend Christmas Eve (Lisa Helmi Johanson), a harsh-talking Japanese therapist whose gruff manner apparently scares away her clients. There are entertaining incidental characters, such as Mrs. Thistletwat, Kate’s teacher-boss, and Lucy the Slut, a sultry nightclub singer, whom Princeton eagerly beds. (The puppet sex in this show is explicit and multi-positional.)
However, Avenue Q does have a smug mean streak. When they sing “Schadenfreude,” a tittering admission that they get happy seeing one another sad, it’s not an ironic source of their misery but just a giggle over the way things are. (Underscoring that attitude, cynical fun is later made of feeling good after giving a quarter to a homeless person.) Princeton never does find his purpose in life, but with this encouragement, if he did it would probably involve a lot of dollar signs.
Sesame Street guided children gently into the realms of social conflicts and emotional insecurities, as well as the world of arithmetic and crossing streets safely. If they just hang on to their immaturity a while longer, maybe the Avenue Q folks can come up with another show to help people chart the shoals of Medicare and grim reapers. Avenue Z, anyone?