Avenue Q: Adults-only puppet musical-comedy hits and misses

A play review
By Stephani Maari Booker

Community Editor

Avenue Q, the 2007 Best Musical Tony winner, premiered at Mixed Blood Theatre on March 25.
-Photo by Rich Ryan

I have been curious about Avenue Q ever since I first heard about the puppets-and-people-performed musical play in the early-to-mid-2000s. As a member of the first generation of people who grew up on Sesame Street, the idea of a politically incorrect, adults-only spoof of the landmark PBS children’s show was appealing to me.
In fact, I was so attracted to the concept of Avenue Q that the only time in my life I have ever watched a full broadcast of the Tony Awards was when the play won for Best Musical. That was also the same year a highly publicized revival of Raisin in the Sun with Sean “Diddy” Combs won two Tonys, including Best Performance by a Leading Actress in a Play for Phylicia Rashad, a first for a Black actress.
Since one of the two music-and-lyrics writers and the book writer for Avenue Q are gay, the play’s sassy, out-and-proud sensibility combined with Raisin in the Sun-related elements (including the performance of a show tune by Diddy’s pal and one of my favorite singers, Mary J. Blige) to make the Tony Awards show more entertaining to me, as someone who is not a Broadway musical aficionado, then I ever could have imagined.
The touring production of Avenue Q was at the Orpheum Theatre last year, but I opted instead to see the new production at Mixed Blood Theatre because it’s a more accessible space, in terms of ticket prices, location and intimacy. Also, Mixed Blood’s mission of staging diversity-packed productions to facilitate social change appeals to me.
So with all this anticipation, I went to see Avenue Q at Mixed Blood Theatre. And “mixed” would be the word to sum up my opinion of the show.
The play is lightly plotted, structured around a series of musical numbers and comedic skits focused on the people and puppets of the run-down imaginary neighborhood of “Avenue Q.” One of the characters is building superintendent Gary Coleman — yes, the character is supposed to be the late former child star.
The real Coleman threatened lawsuits against the Broadway production. The creators of the play supposedly made some small changes to the character and “his” lines (both in the Broadway production and at Mixed Blood, the character is played by a woman) after Coleman’s death; but with his demise and the overall tragedy of his life, having the Coleman character sing in the number “It Sucks to Be Me” that his life sucks the most of all, as well as singing in a later song that his whole purpose is to make other people feel good about their lives by seeing the misery of his — well, that really left a bad taste in my mouth.
Another number that left a bitter flavor was “Everyone’s a Little Bit Racist,” which tries to teach a politically incorrect lesson about the universality of prejudice but ends up dismissing the fact that not all prejudices are created equal: “Gary Coleman” telling “polack” jokes is not the same as Princeton (a character played by a White man and his mini-me puppet clone) and Kate (a purple monster puppet and her White female puppeteer) telling “Black” jokes because there’s no system of oppression that backs up “Gary’s” prejudice.
Many of the musical numbers’ attempts to be anti-politically correct and provocative end up being anti-PC for its own sake and fall flat in terms of trying to teach the audience hard lessons, including “The Internet Is for Porn,” in which a larger puppet named Trekkie Monster leads the male characters in declaring what most of us already know — that a giant chunk of bandwidth is used by men trolling for smut.
The best musical number in the show is “You Can Be as Loud as the H#!! You Want (When You’re Makin’ Love),” and that’s because it’s performed with a raucously funny “sex” scene in which Princeton and Kate (both the two puppets and their scantily-clad puppeteers) jump into bed and go at it in a frenzy. It reminded me of little girls playing “nasty” in secret with their dolls. What girl hasn’t put Ken on top of Barbie, or Brad on Christie (the Black friends of Ken and Barbie, for those who don’t remember)?
This scene and the others featuring Princeton and Kate, and other scenes about the trials and tribulations of another couple, puppet-men roommates Rod and Nicky, were the best parts of Avenue Q. Rod and Nicky live together chastely, a la Bert and Ernie, but Nicky is sure that show-tune loving, business-suit wearing Republican Rod is gay. Rod refuses to acknowledge his sexuality, despite Nicky letting him know it would be fine for him to do so — because Rod is in love with Nicky.
Meanwhile, Princeton lets “anti-monster” prejudice drive him away from Kate and into the arms of a human, puppet-less siren known tastefully as “Lucy the Slut.”
I wanted so much to love this play, and had it been just about the two couples and not about trying to be politically incorrect for its own sake and teaching in a confrontational way that human beings — including those of us in the audience — deep down inside are really all f@#ked up (there’s plenty of curse words in this play, but not as many as it’s hyped up to have), I think I would have enjoyed my entire stay at the often-delightfully ribald Avenue Q without reservations.

Avenue Q runs through May 1 at Mixed Blood Theatre. For more information, go to the Spot listings on page 5.
Stephani Booker welcomes reader responses to sbooker@spokesman-recorder.com.