The closing of a long-running Broadway show invariably sends a sentimental pang through the New York theater community. But even if “Avenue Q” no longer lives on the Main Stem, what matters is that it lives on. Of all the musicals hatched in the post-2000 age of irony, this cheeky satire of children’s television shows like “Sesame Street” has arguably remained the freshest and funniest. Returning to its Off Broadway origins, the 2004 Tony winner shows no discernible signs of downsizing and no loss of heart. If anything, its message of endurance with a smile seems even more appropriate for these challenging times.
It’s been more than 20 years since a major Broadway production transitioned to an Off Broadway stage directly after closing. (The most recent example was ” ‘night, Mother” in 1984.) If the producers of “Avenue Q” can extend its life, more power to them. They may even succeed in creating a new economic model that allows other deserving shows to override their Rialto expiration dates and remain New York fixtures.
While the musical’s core journey is the rocky transition from college to financial independence and emotional maturity, the adversities faced by its puppet and human characters are familiar to any age group. They also seem especially keyed into the recession zeitgeist — bills to pay; a low-paying job or no job at all; housing worries; education qualifications that prove useless in the real world. The news that all this struggle and dissatisfaction is “Only for Now,” to quote the show’s closing song, is an unusually droll and grounded consolation for a musical, a genre more traditionally given to sweeping optimism. But the affirmation of transience in this context is somehow its own unorthodox source of uplift.
What’s most irresistible about Robert Lopez and Jeff Marx’s songs, and Jeff Whitty’s book, is the impish way they confront us all with some of the thornier aspects of human nature. Songs like “It Sucks to Be Me,” “Everyone’s a Little Bit Racist,” “Schadenfreude” and “The More You Love Someone the More You Want to Kill Them” cleverly articulate feelings pretty much all of us have experienced. As for “The Internet Is for Porn,” no comment.
The show also manages to echo the kind of life lessons children’s television imparts with a subversive twist that plays amusingly off the sugar-coating — altruism vs. selfishness; finding a purpose vs. slacking; be sensitive to minorities; it’s good to be special, but also OK not to be. And the cute but wicked (and slightly grubby) Bad-Idea Bears that gleefully usher characters down the wrong path remain a stroke of comic genius.
Beyond their irreverent wit, the strength of Lopez and Marx’s songs is that they work as novelty numbers, skewering the singsong style of educational “Sesame Street” ditties, but they’re also as catchy and melodic as good showtunes should be. “There’s a Fine, Fine Line” and “I Wish I Could Go Back to College” tap a sweet poignancy that’s never cloying. And if “You Can Be as Loud as the Hell You Want (When You’re Makin’ Love)” is not the most hilarious and raunchiest number about sex in musical history, it’s a strong contender.
Jason Moore’s production is in tip-top shape. Anna Louizos’ outer-borough New York tenement set looks more authentically funky and dilapidated than ever, and Howell Binkley’s descriptive lighting bathes it in a grungy glow. Orchestrator-arranger Stephen Oremus already had done a sterling job on Broadway tailoring the score for a modest six-piece band; that quota remains here, so there’s no diminishment of musical heft. All that’s really shrunk is the size of the theater, creating a more intimate rapport between the audience and the folks and faux Muppets onstage.
Composed of alumni from various Broadway and tour casts, this is a terrific ensemble, free from the umpteenth-generation fatigue that often besets shows that stick around a lot of years. Doing the heaviest lifting as puppeteers and performers, Seth Rettberg doubles tirelessly as fresh-out-of-college Princeton and closeted Republican banker Rod; Anika Larsen brings just the right jaded edge to visionary kindergarten teacher Kate Monster’s earnestness, and a brassy growl to the Mae West stylings of maneater Lucy the Slut.
Spirited backup comes from Danielle K. Thomas as building superintendent and self-acknowledged has-been Gary Coleman; Sala Iwamatsu as nobody’s compliant geisha, Christmas Eve; and Nicholas Kohn as her henpecked husband, failed comedian Brian. Doing invaluable work in multiple roles are Maggie Lakis (priceless as the incorrigible female bear) and Cullen R. Titmas, whose voice work is razor-sharp — close your eyes when Rod’s unrequited love Nicky is talking and you could be listening to Jim Henson as the character’s prototype, Ernie.
These puppets are way smuttier than anything ever created by the Muppetmeister, but it’s hard to imagine he wouldn’t have gotten a big kick out of them.