Let’s face it: being a twenty-something can kinda suck. Pumped full of confidence and aspirations, we flee the family nest…and fall flat on our faces. Avenue Q uses songs (written by Robert Lopez and Jeff Marx) and puppetry both to lament and poke fun at this difficult time. Much like Sesame Street, it has a cast made up of human actors who interact with a variety of furry creatures, who themselves have hands up their butts. Think that description is tasteless? This might not be the show for you—these puppets are crude and lewd, and have a taste for alcohol and porn. Don’t say you weren’t warned.
The story begins as Princeton—a 23-year-old college graduate (and puppet)—moves to New York City to start his adult life. Before he can even start his first real job, he gets laid off, which leaves him to wonder what he’s supposed to be doing in the grand scheme of things. Luckily, he finds solace amongst his neighbours on Avenue Q—neighbours who are also grappling with their life’s purpose. Brian is a failing comedian, Christmas Eve is overeducated and underemployed, Kate Monster has big ideas but no funding, and Rod struggles to define his sexuality. And then there’s former child star Gary Coleman, whose fall from grace landed him the illustrious position of Building Superintendent. The (self-explanatory) Bad Idea Bears and Lucy the Slut are thrown into the mix to further complicate matters for our protagonist.
If you didn’t heed the prior warning, take note: in order to fully enjoy this production, it’s imperative that one checks one’s political correctness at the door. While incredibly catchy and sing-along worthy, songs like “Everyone’s a Little Bit Racist” and “The Internet Is for Porn” are not for the easily offended. Neither is Christmas Eve’s over-emphasized Asian-American accent or the puppet sex—but it’s all in good fun. While absolutely not a show for children, the inappropriate humour is kept to a level that most “decent” adults will be able to handle.
Breaking the number-one rule of puppetry—assuming there is such a thing—the Avenue Q puppeteers make no effort to conceal themselves. Standing alongside the human actors, the handlers appear as extensions of the puppets’ bodies. While this might sound a bit aesthetically displeasing, it’s surprising how quickly the puppets seem to develop autonomy. Most of the handlers operate at least two characters; sharing duties, they smoothly trade off puppets in a well-choreographed dance. They must essentially master the art of conversing with themselves. Sometimes voicing two onstage puppets simultaneously, they’re required to coordinate mouths and hands while switching tones—and to do so without missing a beat.
While Avenue Q does have some pop culture references, the play has managed to stay relevant since 2002 because of its focus on timeless themes of insecurity, ambition, and hope. Sure, hints of Sleepless in Seattle, An Affair to Remember, and Sesame Street surface throughout the story, but nothing is referenced consistently enough that constant script rewrites would be required. In fact, of all the jokes, only the Rob Ford jabs will likely end up being tired, and retired.
Bringing a beloved Broadway work to the small stage can be limiting, but the Toronto cast of Avenue Q has done the production justice with its standout vocal performances and well-executed puppetry. Whether you’re broke and unemployed, or just need to enjoy a little schadenfreude, we suggest you go see this play and take your mind off of life’s disappointments for a few hours.