Avenue Q comes to Pittsburgh

Some gloriously drunk night, Sesame Street and Rent did it like rabbits and produced a bizarre but brilliant love child named Avenue Q. Like Rent, Avenue Q explores the joys and tragedies of a bunch of penniless twentysomethings living together in the less fashionable part of New York City. Unlike Rent, nobody in Avenue Q has AIDS, nobody dies, and half the characters are Muppet-like puppets. Channeling Sesame Street, Avenue Q shares the show’s joy, multicultural cast, and animated skits (played on plasma screens that drop down from the sky). And, of course, there’s the singing and dancing. But Avenue Q is far more than a combination of two very different shows — it’s a brilliant satire, a remarkable achievement of puppeteering, and a superb musical. As part of the show’s Broadway tour, the puppets and their counterparts rode into Pittsburgh Thanksgiving week.

As the show begins, the puppets seem a bit strange. When idealistic, wet-behind-the-fuzzy-ears college graduate Princeton first walks onstage with puppeteer Robert McClure to sing “What Do You Do with a B.A. in English,” it’s hard to know who to watch — the puppet or the puppeteer. It’s disconcerting that, essentially, two actors are playing each part. But by the time the cast has swung into the second song, “If You Were Gay,” the audience has had time to adjust.

This unique duality might detract from the puppets’ impact under lesser puppeteers, but Avenue Q’s non-furry cast members are excellent in their task. The puppeteers of Avenue Q are not just the men and women behind the curtain — they are extensions of their puppets’ personas. To this end, the puppeteers act as much as the puppets; when Princeton flirts with Kate Monster, for example, their puppeteers make goo-goo eyes as well. Since the puppets end at the waist, their puppeteers must sometimes fill in as the legs; when Kelli Sawyer was giving life to Lucy the Slut, her swaying hips became Lucy’s.

The play centers around Princeton, who has just moved to Avenue Q after discovering that he can’t afford rent anywhere else. He soon meets his neighbors — failed stand-up comic Brian (Cole Porter) and his Japanese fiancée Christmas Eve (Angela Ai); polar opposite roommates Rod and Nicky, not-so-subtly based on Sesame Street’s Bert and Ernie (Robert McClure and David Benoit); porn-obsessed Trekkie Monster (also David Benoit); and landlord Gary Coleman.

Downsized before starting the job that brought him to New York, Princeton struggles to figure out his purpose in life. But he soon discovers he’s not the only one with problems: Brian is unemployed, and Christmas Eve, a psychiatrist, can’t get any clients because of her Japanese accent. Kate Monster is not only perpetually single, but she has also given up on her lifelong dream to start a special school just for monsters. Rod, a Republican investment banker, is trapped in the closet, hiding a secret love for his straight roommate Nicky. And aging child star Gary Coleman left his fame and fortune behind in the ’80s.

The choice of using Gary Coleman — a real person — is a bit odd, especially as it is the only thing (at least until Sesame Street is canceled) that dates the musical. (The real Gary Coleman is less-than-pleased by his appearance in the script.) Other than that, Avenue Q is about as close to a perfect piece of musical comedy as you can get. The songs are all hit-worthy, the Sesame Street satire is clever without overpowering the plot, and the choreography is spot-on; the dialogue sent audience members of all ages roaring.

Almost all of the actors in the tour cast also played on Broadway, and all of them were brilliant. Angela Ai was absurdly hilarious as a walking Asian stereotype, and the puppeteers who gave life to Princeton and Kate Monster were especially expressive. All the puppeteers portrayed more than one character, and each moved seamlessly from role to role.

Avenue Q is proof that sharp young minds can still create magic on Broadway. The musical is on tour until August 2008, and it’s still on Broadway — not as easy as turning on Sesame Street, but definitely more fun. Don’t bring your littlest cousins, though — the show does feature full puppet nudity.