'Avenue Q' brings puppetry to Broadway

By FREDERICK M. WINSHIP  |  Sept. 3, 2003 at 5:04 PM
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NEW YORK, Sept. 3 (UPI) -- A musical comedy with Sesame-style hand puppets has brought the tribulations of young college graduates who can't find employment to the Broadway stage in a production that is so disarmingly charming and amiably naughty that it appeals to audiences of all levels of sophistication.

What TV's "Sesame Street" did for pre-schoolers, the show titled "Avenue Q" has set out to do for television's most sought-after demographic group, teenagers through 49, who do most of the nation's buying except for tickets to live theater. It's a gamble that may pay off for producers of the show at the Golden Theater that had its first success at an Off Broadway theater last spring.

The show spoofs "Sesame Street" but pays it respectful homage to the extent of having video screens on either side of the Golden's stage showing animated educational images and the syntactic relations of such appositive words as "commitment" and "one night stand." Some of the puppeteers are veterans of "Sesame Street," notably John Tartaglia who handles and gives voice to Princeton, the hero of the comedy.

Princeton has a college degree and no job and has drifted to remote Avenue Q, a fictional street in the New York borough of Queens, where rents are low and other renters are also at equally loose ends. He finds a room he can afford in a building looked after by a non-puppet superintendent who turns out to be Gary Coleman, a former child star on television.

Princeton's neighbors include two members of the furry Monster clan - Kate Monster, a kindergarten assistant who would like to be Princeton's girlfriend, and Trekkie Monster, a reclusive connoisseur of Internet pornography. Also living on the block are a suppressed homosexual stockbroker name Rod and his laid-back roommate Nicky, two interfering Bad Idea Bears, a bosomy singer named Lucy T. Slut who seduces Princeton, and two other non-puppets, a Japanese-American social worker nicknamed Christmas Eve and her American fiancé Brian, an unemployed stand-up comic.

The show was conceived by Robert Lopez, a Yale graduate who found his English degree led to odd jobs like writing letters to satisfied Viagra customers, and Jeff Marx, a Cardozo Law School graduate and self-taught composer who could only find interning jobs in show business. They met in 1998 at a theater workshop and began collaborating on various projects, one of which was an idea for a television show that led to the stage show, "Avenue Q," for which Jeff Whitty wrote the book.

Lopez and Marx share composing and lyric writing, an almost unique arrangement in Broadway musical history. The puppets for the show were designed by Rick Lyon, whose 25-year career was first encouraged by the late puppeteer Jim Henson of "Sesame Street" fame. Jason Moore has directed with a sure feel for the kind of comedy that has as its anthem, "It Sucks to Be Me," a sort of summation of the frustrations of today's Lost Generation.

The feelings of this generation are also nicely put into words in a song titled "Schadenfreude," which begins "The world needs people like you and me/ Who've been knocked around by fate./ 'Cause when people see us,/ They don't want to be us,/ And that makes them feel great."

There are a number of other winning ditties with music that rarely rises above tuneful adult burlesques of children's song. They have such titles as "I Wish I could Go Back to College," "Everyone's a Little Bit Racist," "The Internet Is Porn," "I'm Not Wearing Underwear Today," "There Is Life Outside Your Apartment," "The Money Song," and "My Girlfriend, Who Lives in Canada," sung by the closeted Rod to explain his lack of female companionship.

The show is undoubtedly the first on Broadway to contain a scene of noisy sexual coupling - even if it is only puppet sex - followed by an exculpatory song titled "You Can Be as Loud as the Hell You Want (When You're Making Love)".

The puppeteers wear their puppets, all designed by Rick Lyon, on their arms and occasionally team up to operate them. Tartaglia, a charismatic stage presence, is so masterful in his manipulation of Princeton and Rod that you soon forget his human presence, which is more or less true of all the puppeteers.

Equally talented is Stephanie D'Abruzzo who handles Kate Monster and Lucy. Other puppeteers are designer Lyon, Jordan Gelber, and Jennifer Barnhart. Taking non-puppet roles are Natalie Venetia Belcon as the irrepressible Gary Coleman, Ann Harada as the irresistible Christmas Eve, and Jordan Gelber as irresponsible Brian.

Anna Louizos' set captures the architecturally quirky charm of three-story townhouses in poor areas of Astoria, Queens, and Howell Binkley has lit the facades in ways that make them look like gingerbread cottages right out of a fairy tale. Mirena Rada also has given her costumes designs a storybook touch, especially the colorful Japanese wrappers worn by Christmas Eve.

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