Where does Gen-X move when it’s way too old for Sesame Street and way too poor for Park Avenue? Avenue Q may not look like much, but it’s a truly delightful address. Like the landmark locale of the Children’s Television Workshop, it’s friendly to people and puppets alike, its ramshackle edifices are rife with life lessons to be learned, and its currency of communication is the bouncy, upbeat tune. But on the title thoroughfare of the 2004 Tony-winning musical making its Boston debut at the Colonial Theatre (through March 23), the puppets get to have vigorous sex, the Bert stand-in really is gay, and the resident rapacious monster is addicted not to Pepperidge Farm but to Internet porn. For those who prefer their Mr. Rogers without Mr. Hammerstein and South Park to Sunday in the Park with Georges, it’s a beautiful day in the neighborhood!
Avenue Q is the brainchild of a couple of then-20-somethings, Robert Lopez and Jeff Marx, who met through the BMI Lehman Engel Musical Theater Workshop, hatched the idea for this audacious show, and then brought in book writer Jeff Whitty and puppet designer Rick Lyon. The unlikely Broadway musical tells the tale of good-hearted, badly strapped young adults coexisting in a dilapidated “outer-outer borough” of New York as they pursue jobs, mates, and, in the case of wide-eyed recent college grad Princeton, a “purpose.” (This is just one concept illustrated via animated video on a couple of descending TV screens also used to demonstrate such verbal constructs as “Schadenfreude” and “one-night stand.”)
Three of the characters are human beings: the couple comprised of aspiring comedian Brian and blunt, understandably clientless therapist Christmas Eve, who is Japanese but talks like Charlie Chan, and the building superintendent, Gary Coleman. Yes, that Gary Coleman (played by an actress), erstwhile star of Diff’rent Strokes, who, unlike some of his fellow 1980s child TV stars, is at least out of jail and in work. Anyway, he is in Avenue Q, where, having achieved his purpose by 15, he holds the trump card in the competitive tune “It Sucks to Be Me.” All of the other characters – Princeton, furry assistant kindergarten teacher Kate Monster, strange bedfellows Nicky (a green slacker in a New York sweatshirt) and Rod (a closeted gay Republican investment banker, who wouldn’t really live on Avenue Q, but maybe he’s slumming), and shaggy recluse Trekkie Monster, tunefully adamant that “The Internet Is for Porn” – are puppet love-children of the Sesame Street ménage and the Muppets, manipulated, sung, and spoken for by one or more visible actor-puppeteers. What’s brilliant about Avenue Q is the way in which folks and felt converge, so that each of these characters consists of both the expressive, gesticulating puppet and his or her expert other half, less manipulator than doppelganger.
What else works for Avenue Q is its combination of raunchiness and sweetness. That all of the characters want to feel “safe” and “special,” as Fred Rogers promised was their birthright, and to do some genuine good in the world just makes Trekkie Monster’s admonition to Internet-porn surfers to “grab your dick and double-click” or closeted Rod’s pathetically macho ode to “My Girlfriend Who Lives in Canada” or Princeton and Kate Monster’s dexterous and protracted sex scene – surprisingly graphic, considering that the characters lack lower halves – more hilarious. And it’s hard to say whether Marx and Lopez’s generic but witty ditties, including the communally sheepish “Everyone’s a Little Bit Racist,” or their odd notions are cleverer. Among the latter are a couple of adorable flying teddies that call themselves the Bad Idea (as opposed to News) Bears and show up like devils on the shoulder, cooingly advocating that beer be bought on parents’ money and that a couple of Long Island Iced Teas are just what a kindergarten teacher needs on a school night. Who needs Mephistopheles, who isn’t even cute, when you can sell your soul to the Care Bears?