A Review

One Fur All

By R. J. Donovan

In 2004, "Avenue Q" scored the Tony Award as Best Musical. With a prize like that, a national tour is guaranteed to rack in the bucks that aren't already being collected on Broadway. However, in a move that shocked theater-goers everywhere, the producers of "Avenue Q" announced there would be no tour. Instead, they would open one, lone, sit-down production in Las Vegas.

For whatever reason, the Vegas show didn't last. (Could it be because most Broadway shows that hit Vegas snip and edit the production down to a fast 90 minutes so the gamblers can get back to the casino where they belong?)

"Avenue Q" has continued to play to happy houses at The Golden Theatre on Broadway, and now, after far too long, the national touring company is with us at The Colonial Theatre, also playing to very happy houses.

Words, music and the original concept of the show are from the team of Robert Lopez and Jeff Marx. (The two are reportedly at work on a new musical with the guys from "South Park.") The book is by Jeff Whitty. Direction is from Jason Moore.

This warm, quirky little gem is an adults-only spoof on "Sesame Street." (No surprise there as several of the creators once spent time on staff at the PBS show.) While the issues and dilemmas on "Sesame Street" are being tackled by tiny tikes, here, the sassy problems are very grown up. (This is not a show for children.)

"Avenue Q" may be the low rent district of town, but the same musical philosophy of loving one another and finding happiness is firmly in place. Puppets intermingle with people, we learn lessons, we sing songs and it's all warm and fuzzy -- literally. It's also hysterically irreverent and politically incorrect as we traverse a road filled with sexism, racism, therapy, profanity, pornography and homelessness.

Part of what makes it work so well is the puppets themselves. The naughty remarks and lusty actions don't seem quite so raw coming from furry little Bert and Ernie wannabes.

Unlike "Sesame Street," the puppeteers are clearly visible. And that's a plus, because the actors add tremendously to your enjoyment of the show. At the same time, the puppeteers don't interact with each other, nor do the puppets acknowledge them. (You soon find yourself watching the puppets as though they were actually speaking.)

At the top of the evening, we meet Princeton, a recent college grad who's about to begin his adult life. He can't afford the nicer neighborhoods in town, so he starts looking for an apartment on Avenue A, ultimately working his way through the alphabet before finding his family of new friends in a tenement on Avenue Q.

They include Kate Monster (a kindergarten teaching assistant with whom Princeton falls in love), Rod (a blue-faced, closeted Republican banker), Nicky (Rod's straight and somewhat bumbling roommate); Trekkie Monster (a hairy porn addict) and Lucy the Slut (no further description needed).

Each character comes with a plainly visible actor "pulling the strings," so to speak, and giving the puppet voice. Additional human characters (sans puppets) include Brian (an aspiring and perfectly awful stand-up comic), his Japanese fiance Christmas Eve (an out of work therapist) and the superintendent of the apartment building where they all live, Gary Coleman. Yup, that Gary Coleman (played by a woman).

The jokes fly fast and furious and the songs are sharp and on the money. The cast laments their various personal problems in "It Sucks To Be Me." They face the reality of life in "Everyone's A Little Bit Racist." Nicky tries to assure Rod they'd be friends even "If You Were Gay." And Christmas Eve brings down the house with her broken-English torch song, "The More You Ruv Someone."

The pace is quick, the direction is sharp and the cast is tops from start to finish. (Several folks have been a part of the Broadway company.) As both Rod and Princeton, Robert McClure gives life to two warm and funny characters. David Benoit (a Boston Conservatory grad) shows off incredible vocal dexterity creating the gravely-voiced Trekkie Monster, the ultimately homeless Nicky and one of the twin squeaky-voiced Bad Idea Bears. Kellie Sawyer runs the gambit from innocent Kate Monster to the more worldly Lucy. Cole Porter is Brian, the awful comedian. Sala Iwamatsu is a pig-tailed bedecked Japanese stereotype in Christmas Eve. Assisting with Trekkie and playing Kate's rigid supervisor as well as the other Bad Idea Bear is Minglie Chen. And Carla Renata is the overall-wearing Gary Coleman.

Special credit also goes to Rick Lyon, who designed all the puppets and played Trekkie Monster and Nicky in the original Broadway company.

In the end, "Sesame Street" is what everyone was watching.

"Avenue Q" is what everyone was thinking.

"Avenue Q" is at The Colonial Theatre, 106 Boylston Street, through March 23. For information, call 617-931-2787.

Production Photos: Carol Rosegg

NOTE: For a look at the behind-the-scenes creation of the show, check out the DVD, "Show Business: The Road To Broadway." The documentary from film producer Dori Berinstein set out to capture the 2003 season on Broadway, from casting and rehearsals to openings and closings. It primarily focuses on the four shows that went on to vie for the Tony as Best Musical that year -- "Wicked", "Avenue Q," "Taboo" and "Caroline, or Change."

-- OnStage Boston



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