The wickedly funny and smart “R-rated puppet show” “Avenue Q” closed in New York last May after multiple runs off and on Broadway, delighting audiences and winning Best Musical, Best Book, and Best Original Score Tony Awards in 2004. Considered by critics a “breakthrough musical” with long-term influence, the show remains shockingly fun, even for those among us who have seen it in various iterations over the years.
So much so that I envy anyone who has yet to experience the treat of seeing this dark, hilarious parody of “Sesame Street” for the first time. In Southwest Michigan, those enviable folks — as well as others who simply love the show and want to see an excellent production — have a wonderful opportunity at Farmers Alley Theatre in Kalamazoo.
Directed by Robert Weiner, this “Avenue Q” makes the more than 15-year-old musical fresh, and every bit as hysterical and surprisingly poignant as it’s meant to be.
With book by Jeff Whitty and music and lyrics by Jeff Marx and Robert Lopez, “Avenue Q” tells the story of Princeton, a vaguely Millennial recent college grad with a seemingly useless English degree who, amid his quest for purpose, stumbles upon deeper truths and hard knocks with a kooky cast of characters, both human and puppet, on his block in an “outer, outer borough” of New York, including Gary Coleman, their building’s super, a poster child for the rising star smacked down by crippling disappointment.
But it’s all in good fun. In the opening, they sing joyfully “it sucks to be me” revealing that no one is quite living the dream. Other peppy numbers, such as “The Internet is for Porn,” and “Schadenfreude” brightly elucidate darker realities sweetly. Having fuzzy, colorful creatures smack us in the face with such harshness that rings true with levity is strangely heartening.
The only number that feels somewhat dated is “Everyone’s A Little Bit Racist,” which, though still well-meaning and true, doesn’t land the same way in a Black Lives Matter world with a white supremacist in the White House. However, this is no fault of the performers, who are tremendous in every way, and, acknowledge in the final number, “For Now,” that everything in life is temporary, even Trump — to great applause.
It truly is a marvel to see these actors working with puppets (designed by Character Translations) to make them come alive as believable characters while also acting themselves. It’s a feat of voice, movement, and facial expressivity to wonderful effect.
Harrison Bryan is at the forefront here as Princeton as well as Rod, the closeted Republican, utterly sympathetic, and with astounding vocal gymnastics to create distinct characters; he is the driving force of the show’s narrative. Cat Greenfield is a wonderful Kate Monster, the impressively complex ingenue, and somewhat underplays the temptress Lucy the Slut. Stephen Anthony Grey is a delightful Trekkie Monster with a dead-ringer Cookie Monster voice, as well as easy-going slacker Nicky, the Bert to Rod’s Ernie.
Other puppeteers include Sam Slottow and Brian Panse as the wonderfully twisted and irresistibly cute and terrible Care Bear-like Bad Idea Bears, who pop up to encourage things like binge drinking and screaming sex.
And the human actors — sans puppets — are also especially good. Greg Laux is remarkable as Brian, the wanna-be comic who doesn’t wear underwear and is largely a punching-bag for his unapologetically overbearing wife, Christmas Eve, played loud and proud by the truly excellent Teresa Attridge. Joriah Kwame, one of the best singers of the bunch, is a tremendous Gary Coleman, lewd, sad, and yet utterly amusing — his gyrations with a broomstick are but one of many hilarious moments of physical comedy.
With wonderfully creative staging and a terrific set by W. Douglas Blickle the show feels especially up close and personal in the intimate space of Farmers Alley Theatre, heightened by lights from Gayla Fox, sound by Alex Tobin, and props by Savannah Draper.
Yes, since “Avenue Q” made its stunning debut, Bert and Ernie have come out of the closet, Gary Coleman has died, Millenials have given way to Generation Z, and white liberals have an embarrassing tendency to humble brag about how “woke” they are. And yet none of those cultural shifts change the heart of the show, which shows us the shadow of who we are — and have been — with realness and genuine laughter. Especially when a production gets it as right as Farmers Alley does.
Farmers Alley Theatre
July 19-Aug. 11