The “Avenue Q” national tour, eagerly anticipated since tuner’s surprise 2004 Tony sweep, was forestalled by an abortive Vegas engagement one year later. Its first leg has launched in San Diego under the aegis of the Old Globe, and the short report is that this is the sweetest and cheeriest “Avenue Q” yet. Solid troupe of mostly Gotham and Vegas vets performs as if material were newly minted, while the effort to sand down some of the rawer edges serves to bolster rather than subvert its appeal.
“What do you do with a B.A. in English?” From the roar of merry recognition at that first sung lyric by recent grad Princeton (Robert McClure), who can’t pay his bills yet ’cause he has no skills yet, it’s clear this is a block party for Boomers and Gen X’ers who have been around the block a few times. Tuner feeds on the contrast between the uncertainties and heartbreak of becoming a grownup, and the sunny Mister Rogers take on life on which so many were weaned.
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Jeff Whitty’s picaresque book puts a reality-bites spin on the glad pieties of “Sesame Street” while taking seriously the dreams of strivers and slackers alike. They default on rent, surf Internet porn, lie, cheat and curse but they do follow their heart. The fact that some are live actors and others puppets (wielded by expressive humans who literally meld with the felt) makes no difference whatsoever to show’s emotional core, abetted by Robert Lopez and Jeff Marx’s lyrical evocation of universal feelings — I wish I could go back to college; everyone’s a little bit racist; it sucks to be me — within the narrow realm of TV jingles and pop ballads.
Wisely recognizing that the hinterland is far likelier to share the characters’ dazed-and-confused perplexity than their streetwise fury, helmer Jason Moore tones down show’s anger and ratchets up the innocence. Changes in tone and shifts in emphasis are minute, but palpable: a homelessness subplot downplayed here, the snarkiest verse of the “Schadenfreude” song excised there. Anna Louizos’ brownstone set seems to have lost a bit of clutter and grime, and much of the bitterness of one-time superstar turned superintendent Gary Coleman (Carla Renata) is replaced by insouciance.
Subtly but essentially, Moore has transformed a “Sesame Street” episode self-consciously seen through a glass darkly, into more of the genuine article. Rather than receive a watering-down, the show is stronger for his labors. Both humans and puppets are so ingenuous, so wide-eyed and naive in an authentically Children’s Television Workshop way, that all the R-rated material becomes paralyzingly funny, and the dicier the topic the funnier it gets: the sex between needy Princeton and woeful Kate Monster (Kelli Sawyer) is pushed to the limit, but the human actors’ who-me? openness renders it utterly unobjectionable.
In the process, show has been blessedly pruned of much wink-wink smugness and self-congratulation. This stretch of “Avenue Q” appeals wholeheartedly to the fundamental decency of its people, its assurance that “When you help others/You can’t help helping yourself” more sincere than ever.
Hard-working cast is light on its feet, and their character voices remain fresh, even as they satisfactorily duplicate the originals (gotta match the sounds of the CDs sold in the lobby). Standouts include Sawyer, her head in dumbfoundingly perfect synch with that of her puppet; McClure, strengthening show’s spine through his commitment to Princeton’s quest for purpose; and best of all, the tall drink of water named Angela Ai.
As the hilariously screeching Japanese therapist Christmas Eve, Ai can mangle her l’s and r’s with no trace of offensiveness, and then transform herself with a single step into Betty Buckley belting her number (about how the more you ruv someone, the more you want to kirr them) out of the park.
Howell Binkley’s lighting incorporates special mood effects without disturbing the cheerful “Sesame Street” ambience, and deftly allows each human actor to stay slightly out of the spotlight when it’s time for a puppet to take stage.
Strong aud rapport engendered in the relatively intimate Spreckels may be vitiated as prod moves on to more cavernous venues, but the blitheness and heart will surely remain intact. Booked solid for the next 13 months, tour next sails into San Francisco’s Orpheum on Aug. 7 and L.A.’s Ahmanson on Sept. 4.