Gratuitous Violins rating: *** out of ****
Even though I graduated from college sometime in the last century, I still remember what it was like: the ink barely dry on my diploma, settling into my first (low-paying) job and my first lousy apartment, my first loan payment due in a matter of months. Oh, the memories.
But I never had the experience of living in a neighborhood like Avenue Q, which is where you end up if you take a very wrong turn off of Sesame Street. (And I mean wrong - despite the presence of puppets, this is not for children.)
So the musical, which tells the story of Princeton, a new college grad who's trying to find his purpose in life, did resonate when I saw it on tour at the Providence Performing Arts Center. It's funny and appealing and overall, pretty entertaining.
Like most of Avenue Q's residents, Princeton is portrayed by an actor manipulating a puppet. (In this case, Brent Michael DiRoma, who also plays Rod, the closeted Republican investment banker puppet.)
There are non-puppet characters, too, including a would-be comedian named Brian played by Tim Kornblum. His girlfriend, Christmas Eve, is played by Lisa Helmi Johanson, a therapist who speaks with a think Asian accent. The superintendent of the building where Avenue Q takes place is Gary Coleman, played by Nigel Jamaal Clark. (Yes, "the" Gary Coleman.)
Jeff Whitty's book is mostly a boy-meets-girl story. Princeton meets and falls in love with the very sweet and idealistic Kate Monster, played by Jacqueline Grabois. Yes, it's clever and there are plot twists.
For me, the puppets, designed by Rick Lyon, are what give the 2004 Tony winner for best musical, book and score a big chunk of its appeal and originality. (I still think Wicked was robbed that year but in fairness, my theatergoing companion felt Avenue Q had the more universal themes.)
I don't think the musical always hits its mark. Rod's being in the closet and struggling to accept the fact that he's gay is a serious issue. There's a transition from a funny scene to one involving Rod that I think was supposed to be funny but I just found it jarring and sad.
Don't get me wrong - I laughed a lot during Avenue Q, even at some of the more crude and juvenile humor. There are some hilarious songs, by composers Robert Lopez and Jeff Marx.
Take "The Internet is for Porn." I mean, how true is that, right? (Not that I know from personal experience. I'm just guessing.) Yes, it's crude but it's also very funny, especially because it involves a giant furry puppet named Trekkie Monster. I howled at one lyric that I'm too embarrassed to repeat.
The video projections that recall Sesame Street episodes are truly inspired. And like I said, the puppets are great - especially Trekkie Monster, a Mae West-like Lucy the Slut and the "bad idea" bears, who I think are the Care Bears' evil twins. The cast does a great job of focusing your attention on the puppets, not on them.
I loved the dilapidated New York City brownstone designed by Anna Louizos and Howell Binkley's lighting that captured the passage of time from day to evening to dawn so well. (They also did a similar set and lighting for another New York City musical, In the Heights.)
So, while there was a lot to like and I really was entertained, I felt that Avenue Q did go overboard at times. For example, Christmas Eve and her stereotypical Asian accent wore thin. (Sometimes I had trouble understanding her, too.) The song "Everyone's A Little Bit Racist" didn't do a lot for me.
Plus, I saw the show at a theatre that seats about 3,000 people. That's much bigger than the John Golden Theatre, where it played on Broadway for six years before closing last month. It's enormous compared with the musical's new off-Broadway home, New World Stages. I think Avenue Q may lose something in a larger space. (For one thing, in a smaller space you could see the puppets' faces a lot better.)
And speaking of overboard let me tell you, a little hot and heavy puppet sex goes a long way.