The setup: Avenue Q, a sort of adults-only musical parody of Sesame Street that exists and functions, nevertheless, completely independently of the kids' show, opened in 2003 and won a cluster of Tonys. One would think its songs and subject matter, apparently quite topical at the time, would feel dated and stale by now, but happily for the show (maybe not so happily for the prospects of people like its 22-year-old characters), it works as well as ever.
Phoenix Theatre's current production, a revival of its 2011 staging, still has two more weekends to run and, surprisingly, a lot of you have never seen Avenue Q and you need to remedy that immediately.
See also: Nearly Naked Theatre and All Puppet Players Present Fifty Shades of Felt
The execution: I had certainly heard of this play. Though its national Broadway tour was delayed because someone in Las Vegas had what turned out to be a pretty crappy idea (which people in entertainment, like the rest of us, have all the time), it's been popular from the get-go. My companion was a genuinely cosmopolitan, stage-lovin' gal who, surprisingly, had never heard of Avenue Q and didn't know it was the original filthy (relatively speaking) musical with puppets.
In the beginning, AQ creators Robert Lopez and Jeff Marx were breaking a lot of ground in both American musical theater and serious stage puppetry (the latter of which became much more of an all-ages-targeted genre afterward). Some of the show's characters are played by human actors, while the ones who are puppets are operated by performers who do not conceal their faces but use them to supplement the puppets' expression of emotion, which feels so natural you wind up almost never noticing or considering it.
There's no distinction in the script between puppets and humans -- everyone's a human being, basically. There is a song called "Everyone's a Little Bit Racist" that's prompted by a discussion of the divide between "monsters" (which some but not all of the puppets are) and "non-monsters," and during the song we find that the characters also harbor routine stereotypes and insensitivities about people of color and varying religions. I'm not even sure why I think I needed to explain that, except that there is no other play quite like this one.
Like the residents of Sesame Street, the people who live on Avenue Q are genuinely fond of one another, face routine challenges, and have life lessons to learn. They are there partly because they can't afford to live in a nicer New York neighborhood, and like many other young adults nowadays, they are often unemployed, broke, and lonely. They just happen to employ dysfunctional coping mechanisms such as casual sex, Long Island Iced Teas, poor interpersonal communication, terrible career planning, and schadenfreude (the title of another fine song).
The cast is funny as hell. The puppets are adorable and slickly operated. Robert Kovach's set of small-scale Lower East Side/outer borough tenement stoops, above which doors and windows pop open to reveal beensy puppet interiors, is the cutest slum ever. Everybody sings great, and if you're familiar with director Rober Kolby Harper's choreographic skills, you won't be surprised that he makes felt rod puppets look like the damn June Taylor dancers.
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The verdict: This has to be an outstanding production of Avenue Q. I can't imagine it being much better unless you go back to New York to see it, and my unwitting companion was gasping and spitting and especially enjoying what were also my favorite characters, the Bad Idea Bears, who, quite simply, encourage you to do stupid things you generally wind up doing. They're terrifyingly irresistible. One of them is played by Aya Nemeth from 50 Shades of Felt, and it's great to see her silly, brilliant face.
Avenue Q has been extended through Saturday, May 31, at 100 East McDowell Road. Tickets are $30 to $60 here or at 602-254-2151. Though these performances were added later in the run, tickets are going fast, and you should consider a weeknight to ensure you get seats. (Said the Bad Idea Bears.)