Can a merrily disillusioned band of puppets and their human pals from the far East Village find happiness uptown? That’s the question facing “Avenue Q,” the sweetly sour musical that cleverly co-opts the style of a tyke TV show to animate the aimless lives of underemployed twentysomethings looking for love and fulfillment in New York’s outer fringes.
A hit at the Vineyard downtown, the show has made a bold move to Broadway, where its fortunes will depend on luring its target aud — the 35-and-under generation that spent a good portion of its formative years tranced out in front of the tube — to the theater district. Getting them to forsake digital cable to shell out $85 for a ticket will be challenge No. 2. The typical Broadway audience may be more bewildered than delighted at the show’s smart-alecky conceit, which plays up the disjunction between its tongue-in-cheek preschool tone and R-rated subject matter.
The move to Broadway hasn’t brought any major textual changes, although the tech aspects of the production have been subtly enhanced. Anna Louizos’ set, a pop-up-book row of tenement facades rendered in aptly grimy detail, has some fancy new bells and whistles attached, and Howell Binkley’s lighting is flashier and sharper. The animated segments conceived by composer-lyricist Robert Lopez have more polish, and now are telecast on fancy flat digital screens on the rim of the proscenium. Even the sex quotient has been bumped up for Broadway: The onstage puppet coupling is notably more explicit.
The upgraded presentation serves to underscore the show’s pitch-perfect mimicry of its aesthetic models, slickly produced tot-targeted TV shows like “Sesame Street” and “The Electric Company” that educate and socialize youngsters through songs and stories performed by a mix of human actors and cuddly creatures. That’s the basic recipe here, but the show’s talented authors, Lopez and Jeff Marx (score) and Jeff Whitty (book), are working with different ingredients. Instead of anodyne little songs and stories about making friends and learning the alphabet, the folks living on Avenue Q sing about the humiliations of being laid off, the indignities of one-night stands, the complications of coming out.
Lopez and Marx can be sharp-witted observers of human foibles, and their cheerily didactic tunes matching peppy melodies with pessimistic lyrics are the show’s high points. In act one, a pair of puppets from different races (one human, one monster) agree: “Everyone’s a little bit racist sometimes/Doesn’t mean we go around committing hate crimes.” The second act features an irresistible paean to the pleasures of schadenfreude — sung with rousing pizzazz by Natalie Venetia Belcon, who plays Gary Coleman, the faded TV star who shows up here as the friendly neighborhood superintendent. “Try being a has-been at age 15!” he gripes before launching into a song celebrating the suffering of others: “D’ja ever clap when a waitress falls/And drops a tray of glasses/And ain’t it fun to watch figure skaters/Falling on their asses!”
The performers are remarkably adept at maintaining the chipper, gee-whiz tone that matches the wide smiles and bulging eyes of Rick Lyon’s Muppet-style puppets, which retain their adorable qualities even when spewing obscenities. John Tartaglia, who spent eight seasons as a puppeteer and performer on “Sesame Street,” is an endearing presence in a pair of central roles. He plays Princeton, a college-grad newcomer to the nabe who breaks the furry heart of Kate Monster, and Rod, an uptight but nelly Republican with a secret crush on his roomie Nicky. Stephanie D’Abruzzo divides her ample vocal talents between good-girl Kate and blowsy blond vamp Lucy T. Slut. Lyon gives voice to Nicky and a couple of other puppet characters.
The cast of principals is rounded out by a couple of nonpuppeteers: Ann Harada, who plays the pidgin-speaking Christmas Eve and brings down the house with her soulful vocalizing on a mock torch song in which she bluntly advises Kate, “The more you love someone, the more you want to kill ’em.” (She mixes up all her l’s and r’s.) Her chronically unemployed fiance is played with goofy cheer by Jordan Gelber.
For all the cast’s appealing work, mock cuteness can sometimes be as overbearing as the authentic kind. The format being lovingly lampooned is a necessarily limiting one, particularly in terms of the music, which hews closely to the sing-songy style used to drum little lessons into 4-year-olds’ easily distracted ears. Ultimately, the charm in the authors’ smart subversion of the saccharine simplicities of kiddie TV shows will wear off earlier for some than others.
But those with fresh memories of the unpleasant realities of early adulthood are taking to the show like a baby to a favorite blanket. Perhaps that’s because it quite accurately — and rather sweetly — captures the sense of emotional abandonment felt by ambitious kids as they watch their dreams of fame and fortune in the big city slipping away in a tide of credit card bills, temp work and wasted nights out. Such home truths about life’s infinite capacity to disappoint aren’t quite so hard to take when they are being imparted by — and to — brightly colored, fur-covered creatures.