As you've probably heard by now, "Avenue Q" is a long way from "Sesame Street." The touring Broadway musical, which opened last night at the Colonial Theatre, has the same perky pacing and infectious attitude as the classic children's show, but its racy humor makes this sweet-and-sour confection a strictly grown-up treat.
Not too grown-up, though - the ideal "Avenue Q" audience is still young enough to remember those giddy, terrifying years just after college, when childhood is definitely over but you don't quite know yet how to be a full-fledged adult. It also helps to be young enough to remember "Sesame Street," with its mix of human and puppet residents, its simple and slightly goofy graphics, and its catchy educational tunes.
Then again, on "Sesame Street" the songs didn't have titles like "Everyone's a Little Bit Racist," "It Sucks to Be Me," and "Schadenfreude." But that's the kick of "Avenue Q": the juvenile but irresistible pleasure of watching innocent-looking puppets say naughty things, get drunk, and have sex.
These are puppets in their 20s, after all. Our hero, Princeton, has just graduated from college and, with little money except what his parents have supplied, finds himself relegated to a run-down street in an outer borough, Avenue Q. He quickly meets the neighbors: young teacher Kate Monster, Internet porn addict Trekkie Monster (no relation), a closeted Republican banker named Rod, and Rod's slacker roommate, Nicky.
And that's just the puppet neighbors. Also on Princeton's block are a couple of humans: unemployed comedian Brian and his fiancee, the improbably named Christmas Eve, a clientless Japanese therapist who works in a Chinese restaurant. And then there's the super, Gary Coleman - yes, the former child star, only he's played by a lively actress named Carla Renata.
This is all, in case you hadn't noticed, extremely silly. It's also a lot of fun. The contrast between the sunny, bouncy tunes by Robert Lopez and Jeff Marx and their smart-mouth lyrics is irresistible, and the talented young puppeteer-actor-singer-dancers are as entertaining to watch as the puppets they're manipulating.
Kelli Sawyer is particularly amusing as Kate Monster and her less respectable rival for Princeton's love, Lucy the Slut; Robert McClure turns in two lively performances, as the irrepressible Princeton and the very repressed Rod. Sala Iwamatsu plays the creepily stereotyped Christmas Eve with a perfect blend of exaggeration and distance.
I do have to say a word about that stereotyping, though. I know it's all a joke, I know we're all cool, but isn't it interesting that the only character who's really reduced to a cliche is an Asian woman? (There's also the blonde and bosomy Lucy the Slut, but let that go.) "Gary Coleman" is played as a joke on has-been celebrities, not on black kids; just imagine the ruckus if his character had been given a song along the lines of the one Eve sings, "The More You Ruv Someone."
On the other hand, if you can get past the cheap pronunciation jokes, that is a very, very funny song about the hatred that can accompany love, and Iwamatsu delivers it with hilarious gusto. But a team that could come up with a conceit as brilliant as the Bad Idea Bears - they show up to tempt Princeton into buying beer or having a one-night stand - surely could have worked the kinks out of this particular conceit. It's the only thing standing between "Q" and an A.
Louise Kennedy can be reached at email@example.com.