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Theatre Review: "Avenue Q"

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"Avenue Q" was a big hit when it opened off Broadway at the Vineyard Theatre this past spring. Now, the quirky musical featuring both humans and puppets has made it to Broadway. Here's a review from NY1’s Roma Torre.

It’s "Sesame Street" minus the kids, and "Urinetown" minus the toilets. But there are plenty of potty mouths in "Avenue Q," all of which makes this the most cleverly audacious stage musical I've ever seen.

It is that rarest of theatrical aberrations: an artistically pure, politically incorrect, commercial work that bucked the odds to become a huge inside-crowd pleaser. The big question is how will it translate outside the savvy theatre community? Its future is uncertain, but for now audiences are raving. Can you say, “Ka-ching?!”

The Sesame Street connection is no accident. A good number of the production team and performers came from children's television. And what they've done essentially resembles the kind of show that an ensemble often stages for laughs at the end of a regular production. It's a parody of the original, irreverent and off the wall.

“Avenue Q.,” much like Sesame Street, is centered in a neighborhood where life is a series of problems and lessons learned; and the residents struggle to make sense of it all. Only this block is inhabited exclusively by adults with adult-size issues: repressed sexuality, unemployment, racism and depression.

There are even some obvious counterparts: Cookie Monster is the model for Trekkie Monster, whose special obsession happens to be Internet pornography. And Bert and Ernie come to mind when we see roommates Rod and Nicky, only with this pair Rod is gay and frustrated that Nicky is not.

Every member of this fine ensemble is sensational, and it would be unfair to single out anyone in particular without mentioning all. Just when you think you've found a favorite in the cast, someone comes along to top him or her.

But what elevates the show beyond the random gags and sketches you'd find on “Saturday Night Live” is the very incisive way composer/creators Robert Lopez and Jeff Marx, along with book writer Jeff Whitty and director Jason Moore, match Sesame Street's particular style in cutting right to the simple truths in life. Only instead of Sesame's feel-good message declaring everyone special, we hear puppets and humans confess that everyone's a little bit racist.

Parents be warned: do not bring your children to "Avenue Q." If you do, an extended sex scene involving two of the puppets is likely to lead to an unintended lesson in the birds and the bees.

Disclaimers aside, the entire production team deserves the highest praise for turning "Avenue Q" into something far greater than a simple parody. With its compelling characters and unflinching truths, “Avenue Q” is the most human of comedies.

- Roma Torre
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