It was with great fanfare that Avenue Q, a decidedly low-budget (by modern Broadway standards at least) parody of Sesame Street, knocked out the high-profile Wicked for the Tony Award for Best Musical in 2004. Even more theatrical eyebrows were raised when, shortly thereafter, the show's producers announced that in lieu of a national tour, the show would instead be heading to Steve Wynn's swanky new hotel in Las Vegas for a sit-down production in a custom-built theater space. It was a risky move that didn't pay off. Despite massive publicity campaigns and a futile attempt to "Vegas-ize" the show (it was cut to 90 minutes, no intermission), the production closed after only a nine month run.
Thankfully, the not-so-surprising curtain on Avenue Q's Las Vegas fiasco paved the way for a highly anticipated tour, which opened here in San Francisco last week. Ultimately, Avenue Q may be many things -- relentlessly charming, wickedly funny (pun intended), irresistibly hummable -- but a Vegas spectacle is one thing it most definitely is not.
The show revolves around recent college grad Princeton, a sad sack of a puppet-man, whose student debt and useless degree in English lead him to Avenue Q in search of affordable housing in New York City. Here, among the grimy stoops and beat-up trash cans, he meets a colorful menagerie of neighbors, who are obviously inspired by the characters of Sesame Street. But apparently one big thing's changed since Mr. Hooper and Maria hung out with Grover and Big Bird ... these muppets are getting laid! Or (like those of us raised on the highly lauded PBS series), at least, they're trying to get laid, when they're not worrying about unemployment, depression and fear of commitment.
Despite the dark themes upon which Avenue Q occasionally treads, the show bounces along at a doggedly frenetic and consistently hilarious pace, thanks to the boundless energy of a fabulously talented cast. Cole Porter (no, not that Cole Porter) as the very un-funny comedian Brian, and Angela Ai as Christmas Eve, an amalgamation of cynical Asian stereotypes, are the human counterpart to their puppet friends, offering sage advice to their furry friends in much the way Bob and Linda did back on Sesame Street. Ai's "The More You Ruv Someone," with its faux musical theater drama and mauled English grammar, proves to be a sweetly sentimental tribute to love in all its frustrating wonder. Carla Renata -- a dead ringer for comedian Wanda Sykes -- tears it up as the embittered landlord, Gary Coleman. Yes, that Gary Coleman, former child star who, at the conclusion of "It Sucks to Be Me," can rightfully claim to be the person whose life sucks the most.
Robert McClure and Christian Anderson double- or triple-up on puppet roles, so at times they'll provide the arms for one puppet and the voice for another "person of fur," on the other side of the stage. It sounds confusing, but it works. Anderson's adorably clueless Nicky and McClure's high-strung, closeted Rod (clearly modeled on Sesame Street's Bert and Ernie) just might go down as musical theater's hottest new gay couple ... . That is, if they were gay. But the real show-stopper of Avenue Q is Kelli Sawyer, in a dazzling turn as Lucy the Slut, an over-the-top Miss Piggy-esque chanteuse. That Sawyer has lungs that can reach the rafters of the cavernous Orpheum Theater and bring an audience to its feet is amazing; that she can do it all while manipulating a pink foam puppet in a frizzy blond wig is nothing short of extraordinary.
The creative team behind Avenue Q (Robert Lopez, Jeff Marx and Jeff Whitty) hit a home run with this little musical that could, and San Francisco is lucky to have landed a month-long run. Avenue Q runs through September 2, 2007.