“Avenue Q” works off familiarity — everyone in the audience knows puppets, poverty and indecision — and although its first outing away from Gotham comes in a brand-spanking-new theater, the production and setting have the lived-in feel of an old sweater. The wit and theatricality of “Q” play marvelously well at the newly christened Wynn resort, and the presence of John Tartaglia, who performed it Off and on Broadway, gives the wildly amusing tuner an added dose of magic.
Only the second legiter to break the Vegas barrier of 90 minutes, “Q” has all the right elements for a B.O. jackpot: It’s bawdy, tuneful and amusing, the sort of treat the city’s visitors don’t get back home.
It’s difficult to figure out exactly how Steve Wynn spent an estimated $40 million on the venue; nevertheless, it’s a comfortable room with very good acoustics.
“Avenue Q,” winner of the big three tuner Tonys in 2004, is the bawdy puppet show with a purpose. With “Sesame Street”-like characters living in a “Mean Streets” neighborhood and speaking street dialogue, they carve out reasons for living after addressing issues such as racism, commitment and homophobia.
“Avenue Q” is set on a Gotham street where a collection of underemployed inhabitants are waiting for their luck to change. As one character puts it, they started looking at Avenue A and kept going until they found something affordable.
There’s wannabe comedian Brian (Cole Porter) and his therapist-with-no-patients fiancee, Christmas Eve (Natalie Gray); landlord Gary Coleman (Tonya Dixon); school teacher Mrs. T. (Rita Dolphin); and her assistant Kate Monster (Brynn O’Malley). They argue over whose life is worse in “It Sucks to Be Me,” debate who might be racist and celebrate the wonders of Internet porn, all in catchy tunes befitting Ben Folds and the early years of “The Muppets.”
Second act doesn’t have the sting of the first — certainly porn is more fun to tweak than schadenfreude — and it sees escapism as an option before the characters discover the inner richness of helping others. It’s unlikely “Avenue Q” will get tourists to re-examine their values, but they will leave smiling and humming.
And with catchy tunes a rarity on Broadway, “Avenue Q” is a throwback to the days when a tune that could be hummed as the exit doors opened was mandatory. There’s a considerable bounty here: “It Sucks to Be Me,” “There Is Life Outside Your Apartment” and “The Money Song” have melodies that generate neighbor-to-neighbor recommendations; “You Can Be as Loud as the Hell You Want (When You’re Makin’ Love)” and “The Internet Is for Porn” have the lyrics people talk about.
Producers have double-cast the show to get through 10 perfs per week; having Tartaglia, who originated the character of Princeton, and puppet creator Rick Lyon in the cast gives this one a leg up. But newcomer O’Malley, a recent Belle in Broadway’s “Beauty and the Beast,” bends her acting chops around two rival characters, and both win over the audience.
Tartaglia, who plays naive college grad Princeton and closeted gay businessman Rod, and Lyon, who breathes life into the goofy Muppetish Nicky and the porn-loving Trekkie Monster, steal the show. They are one with their puppets as their gestures, expressions and dialogue are viscerally connected between actor and hand puppet. It’s uncanny how an actor’s glum look or bright smile can transport to the expressionless face of his puppet; not only does it appear to happen, it’s apparent from most seats in the house.
Porter and Gray are simply lovable.
Director Jason Moore reprises his Broadway duties, and his zesty approach keeps the feel of the Broadway show intact. Mirena Rada’s costumes for humans and puppets tap into TV kidshows and neobohemia without trying too hard.