(August 1, 2003)

High “Q”

Peter D. Kramer/The Journal News

It's a simple thing, really: one finger.

One orange finger.

One orange felt finger accompanied by a short, declarative command.

What separates the puppets of "Avenue Q" - Broadway's latest arrival, which opened last night at the John Golden Theatre - from their TV cousins on "Sesame Street" is that extended orange felt digit (you know which one), along with that short, declarative command, and the fact that these puppets have loud sex.

Bert, we're not on "Sesame Street," anymore.

Don't take the kids.

"Avenue Q" is a musical boy-comes-to-the-city story told with puppets and their visible handlers. It is also the most inventive, hilarious and politically incorrect show to come along since Mel Brooks' "The Producers."

"Avenue Q" is brought to you by the letters S and G and the number 1, represented by that orange digit. S and G. As in "skanky" and "gonorrhea."

For the record, "Avenue Q" is not brought to you by the family-friendly Jim Henson Company - which is in no way affiliated with the production. But most of the cast learned their tricks on "Sesame Street" and Henson's madcap genius seems to be hard-wired into their DNA.

The music and lyrics are by Robert Lopez and Jeff Marx, with a book by Jeff Whitty. It sounds so familiar, you'd swear the late Joe Raposo ("Sesame"'s longtime composer) had a hand in it. Lopez and Marx thank Raposo, Henson and Frank Oz, among others, for their inspiration. They also thank Trey Parker and Matt Stone, the creators of that other irreverent, looks-like-a-kids-show-but-sounds-otherwise hybrid, "South Park."

Director Jason Moore delivers a fast-paced, cleverly staged and smart show. Ken Roberson's choreography seamlessly sends puppets and puppeteers into production numbers. Yes, puppet production numbers.

"Avenue Q" began life at the Vineyard Theater on 15th Street with a two-month run last spring that brought raves and the confidence to bring it uptown. That confidence is borne out nightly on the stage at the Golden.

There are two large plasma screens flanking the stage that flash words that advance the story and even show periodic short cartoons. Sound like any PBS children's show you've seen? (The videos were designed by Robert Lopez and Brett Jarvis and produced by Noodle Soup Productions, Inc.)

Given the familiar kids' show setting, which is so indelible in its innocence, to hear these puppets sing "Everyone's a Little Bit Racist" is all the funnier:

"Look around and you will find

No one's really color-blind.

Maybe it's a fact we all should face.

Everyone makes judgments ... based on race."

And the laughter thunders when a perverted Cookie Monster sound-alike named Trekkie Monster sings what everybody knows: "The Internet is for Porn."

Everyone's in the same leaking boat on Avenue Q. It's where people come to start their city life.

The central character, Princeton, (John Tartaglia) ends up here fresh out of college with an English degree. He started apartment-hunting on Avenue A, found it too expensive and worked his way out to this outer-outer borough. "This neighborhood looks a lot cheaper," he says. And he's right. Tartaglia, who plays both Princeton and the closeted Rod, shows great range: Princeton is at turns idealistic, depressed and optimistic; Rod is exasperated, shrill and vulnerable. (Rod's hissy fits are something to behold.)

On Avenue Q, a washed-up child star can get a job as a building superintendent and not have people constantly asking him "Whatchoo talkin' 'bout, Willis?" Natalie Venetia Belcon plays Gary Coleman, penniless since his folks stole all his money and wondering if he's just "on a slow, tiresome walk to the grave." Whenever Belcon says "Gary Coleman," she cocks her head and flashes that silly ear-to-ear grin from countless "Diff'rent Strokes" publicity shots.

Princeton soon meets Kate Monster (Stephanie D'Abruzzo), also single, also starting out, also dreaming dreams no one asks her about. Kate is idealistic and put-upon. D'Abruzzo's crystal- clear voice and earnest delivery give Kate an adorable sweetness. D'Abruzzo also plays a trashy nightclub singer, Lucy T. Slut, with a totally different voice and bearing. Because she is a puppeteer, she often is handling and voicing Lucy while also voicing Kate (handled by another cast member).

Other denizens of Avenue Q include:

Roommates Nicky (Rick Lyon) and Rod (Tartaglia) who are best friends, even though one has a secret crush on the other;

Trekkie Monster (Lyon), the pervert with a heart of gold;

Married couple Brian (Jordan Gelber) and Christmas Eve (the hilarious Ann Harada, who speaks in broken English);

And two little lovable characters, The Bad Idea Bears, who are there with just the wrong advice at exactly the wrong time.

Lyon, who conceived and designed the puppets, lets his creations take center stage. Unlike the other actors/puppeteers, Lyon often stands behind his puppets, hidden from view. Perhaps that's what happens after 25 years in a business based on not being seen.

The genius of the Lopez and Marx songs is that they sound just like the show they are sending up. They are not highly adorned, grandly arranged or tricked up. That said, they are not simplistic. Through simple phrases, universal themes emerge: kindness, loneliness, being yourself.

When one character falls on tough times, Gary Coleman explains the concept of "Shadenfreude," finding happiness at the misfortune of others:

"Right now you are down and out

And feeling really crappy.

And when I see how sad you are

It sort of makes me happy!"

When Kate Monster and Princeton have a falling out, Kate sings a sweet little heartbreaker "There's a Fine Fine Line (Between Love and a Waste of Time). Kate approaches Christmas Eve for advice Harada stops the show with "The More You Ruv Someone," a song about how messy love can be.

Anna Louizos' set is appropriately dingy and makes inventive use of every inch. Costumer Mirena Rada dresses the actors in streetclothes and the puppets in character-driven costumes: Lucy T. Slut is appropriately busting out of her tiny outfit.

At times, you find yourself looking at the puppets for reactions and you catch yourself and look to the actor.

It's definitely not for kids, but adults can learn a lot and laugh a lot on "Avenue Q."

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