After 11 years, this hilarious puppet musical still thrills and entertains.
Robert Lopez and Jeff Marx's hilarious puppet musical Avenue Q was groundbreaking when it first premiered on Broadway in 2003. It won the Tony for Best Musical in 2004 and in 2009, the production transferred off-Broadway to New World Stages, where it has remained ever since. So how does this irreverent play about making it in New York City still stand in 2014?
Certain classic songs may feel a bit dated, such as closeted Republican banker Rod's utter terror of revealing his true identity ("My Girlfriend Who Lives in Canada") or innocent kindergarten assistant teacher Kate's horrified realization that "The Internet is for Porn." But much of the social commentary is still incredibly relevant to the political and economic situations of young people in New York today, whether it's "Everyone's a Little Bit Racist," "What Can You Do with a B.A. in English?" or "I Wish I Could Go Back to College." And they're unafraid to throw in a new reference or two, such as this particular evening's distaste of New York's least favorite event, SantaCon.
Also still innovative is the show's puppetry itself, a form of acting in which the actors are not empty vehicles for their instruments but instead perform to their fullest along with the puppets. Both puppet and human react bodily to each line spoken, dancing together and creating a character that is truly the combination of both.
This style makes the production's decision to double-cast so many of its characters particularly surprising. Only four actors are responsible for all of the puppets, which results in such interesting contrasts as Darren Bluestone playing both eager young protagonist Princeton and his neighbor Rod, and Veronica Kuehn being responsible for Kate Monster and her nemesis Lucy the Slut.
So what happens when both characters need to be onstage at the same time? Another actor takes the puppet, and Kuehn throws her voice to speak for both Kate and Lucy during each of their fights. Watching the challenge is fascinating, but it does limit how many puppets can actually be onstage during crowd scenes, and it can be confusing as Lucy or Trekkie Monster get passed off to whichever actors happen to be free at the moment.
Another highlight of the production is the extraordinary, elaborate set, a faithful replica of a series of small apartment buildings in a New York City outer borough that can also transform into the apartment interiors, a nightclub, a hospital and the Empire State Building. Puppets pop out of second story windows to comment on the scene below, creating a world all their own where people interact with puppets and you can be white, black, green or Monster.
Each character, whether person or puppet, is a caricature, but still immensely relatable at the same time. Whether it's prim and proper but horribly lonely Kate Monster or Grace Choi's incredibly strong vocal and comedic performance as Christmas Eve, the entire cast of Avenue Q are the people you encounter every day, but far more hilarious.
Overall, what comes across in this musical is an overarching feeling of joy, even as the crew encounter the most difficult situations--from heartbreak to homelessness. Their ability to stay positive in the midst of utter aimlessness in life is what gives this musical its unique brand of comedy. And with its central themes about growing up and accepting everything that's wrong or just strange about the world we live in, it certainly isn't the sort of show that will become outdated anytime soon.
Avenue Q plays at New World Stages with an open run.
This article was previously published on CHARGED.fm.