A little off base: Yeah, it’s puppets, but ‘Avenue Q’ is adults only
LONDON — Take one serving of post-collegiate angst, add two servings of relationship drama and homosexual denial and set it in the ramshackle backwater of a New York City borough where everyone is broke but colorful.
Now mix vigorously with jazzy live music, puppets in very adult situations and a handful of Sesame Street-inspired television public service announcements focused on the meaning of life and German psychology.
And don’t forget a grown-up Gary Coleman — Arnold from “Diff’rent Strokes” fame — a character who is an under-respected building superintendent.
That’s the basic design behind “Avenue Q,” a West End musical that first swept Broadway a few years ago and is now playing at the Noel Coward Theatre to nearly full houses.
“Avenue Q” claimed the 2004 Tony Award for best new musical with its rich but simple story, children’s television inspiration and nonstop laughs prompted by its edgy jabs at homosexuality, racism, pornography and the perils of contemporary adulthood.
The play starts off with protagonist Princeton Small wondering aloud in song “What do you do with a B.A. in English?” and quickly streams into a seemingly endless parade of hilarious songs such as “It Sucks to be Me,” “Everyone’s a Little Bit Racist” and “If You Were Gay.”
The songs are clever double- and triple-entendres that strive to push the comedic envelope while sparing offending the audience. That was made far easier as they all sang with jovial innocence “The Muppets Take Manhattan.”
The story itself is straightfoward although always secondary to the music. Small moves into a flat on Avenue Q, quickly makes friends with its eccentric tenants and strikes up a relationship with resident single, lonely puppet Kate Monster.
The arc of the play watches Princeton stumble through the relationship from his initial awkward advances to a night of passionate puppet lovemaking and then onto his fear of commitment.
In his retreat from the relationship, he strays into the arms of Lucy, the four-letter word for promiscuous female. He then takes poor advice from a pair of adorably mischievous Bad Idea Bears and begins drinking heavily.
The Bad Idea Bears, who speak in the high-pitched squeal of a Brooklyn auto mechanic, maximize their brief stage appearances with some of the sharpest, funniest dialogue in the play.
At one point they convince Princeton to buy a case of beer rather than a six-pack because “it’s always cheaper to buy in bulk,” and “you’re going to drink it all anyway.”
But Princeton ultimately refuses the advice of the Bad Idea Bears, scorns Lucy, the four-letter word for easy sexual conquest, and raises millions of dollars to build a school for monsters to woo back Kate Monster.
The play succeeds in focusing on universal topics that translate into laughs whether on Broadway or in the West End. But its American inspiration does create a few holes for the British audience.
The song “I Want to Go Back to College” refers to what Britons call university rather than high school, and it was unclear if the audience understood the difference. And a joke about a Mexican busboy needing to learn English was met with confused indifference.
But the closing song “Everything’s Temporary,” drew huge laughs, and a roar of audience approval when the list of temporary matters in life included “George Bush.”
“Avenue Q” is certainly not for children, and some conservative adults might find some of the musical blasphemous or at least in poor taste. But there’s no doubt audiences have responded on both sides of the Atlantic with riotous laughter and critics with coveted awards.
For information on the show, visit www.avenueqthemusical.co.uk
If you go
Location: The Noel Coward Theatre, St. Martins Lane, London WC2N 5AU.
Showtimes:Monday-Thursday: 8 p.m.Friday: 5:30 and 8:30 p.m.Saturday: 5 and 8:30 p.m.
10, 17.50, 27.50 and 35 pound tickets for Monday through Thursday and Friday early performance. 10, 17.50, 27.50, 37.50 and 47.50 pound tickets for Friday late performance and Saturday early performance. 10, 20, 30, 40 and 50 pound tickets for Saturday late performance.Tickets: Online at www.avenueq.com or by phone at 08708 509175.