Avenue Q continues to surprise people, even six years after its Broadway debut. It surprised audiences when it opened because… well, foul-mouthed puppets are a little shocking. It was the upset win for Best Musical at the 2004 Tony Awards, beating out the favored mega-hit Wicked. And it announced what no one saw coming at its closing night performance on Broadway on September 13—the show was re-opening off Broadway!
The announcement sets a sort of precedent for struggling Broadway shows; The New York Times reported that the last incident of a Broadway-off Broadway transfer occurred in 1984. When last January saw the closing of three Best Musical Tony winners (Spamalot, Hairspray and Spring Awakening), enthusiasts claimed the shows were too good to be closing this soon. Of course, if a show’s not making enough to pay the bills, that’s just the way it is. But Avenue Q’s surprise move could start a new trend in New York theater. And it makes perfect sense—Avenue Q wasn’t selling well enough to earn its keep at the Golden Theatre, yet interest in the show was still strong enough to fill an off-Broadway venue. Perhaps Avenue Q’s strategy will give new life to future shows that have slipped in sales, but still maintain a strong fan base.
I saw Avenue Q on Broadway in 2005 and loved it. But a few years have passed and I forgot the reasons that made it great. Viewing it at its new home at New World Stages (where it opened last night) made me remember, and grateful that this show got its second chance.
Taking place in New York, Avenue Q follows humans and Sesame Street-like puppets both struggling in their careers and love lives and trying to figure out where and how they belong. Life lessons are featured, just like in Sesame Street, but it’s an R-rated version of the PBS series. It’s raunchy, but not distasteful. It’s actually delightful. And nothing is lost in the off-Broadway transition.
Is Avenue Q funny? Heck yeah, it is! But in order for it to succeed as a well-rounded musical, it also has to connect with the audience on a deeper emotional level. It takes a while into the first act to hear Avenue Q’s heart begin to beat, but the moment does come, as do some surprisingly tender ones. The fantastic Anika Larsen draws a heartbreaking performance out of Kate Monster after she is jilted from her beau with the Act I closer “There’s A Fine, Fine Line.” And the lyrics and performances in “I Wish I Could Go Back To College” are so earnest that I had tears in my eyes.
The concept of Avenue Q is as far out of the box as you can get. A musical with puppets, in which the puppeteers are in plain sight? The idea is Lion King-esque and a beautiful abstractness. Sometimes I didn’t know who to look at—the human or the puppet. But this cast is so great, I wasn’t missing out on anything by choosing to look at the human or the prop. Seth Rettberg’s eyes are just as expressive and cartoonish as his puppet counterpart, Princeton’s, and Cullen R. Titmus is such a comedian, he gives his felt friends a run for their money.
Nicholas Kohn as Brian is the only blemish in the cast. For being in such a wildly fun show, Kohn certainly doesn’t appear to be having any. Perhaps he’s just bitter his character doesn’t get to have a puppet (I know I’d be). And while Robert Lopez and Jeff Marx’s lyrics are a non-stop parade of hilarious, clever jokes, the music by the two lacks quite a bit in the melody department. I can only hum two songs after leaving the theater (“Purpose” and “It’s A Fine, Fine Line”). With such brilliant lyrics, it’s too bad the notes aren’t as dazzling.
Avenue Q represents everything that makes Broadway special; creativity, fearlessness, and originality. Watching its sales decline in the weekly box office tallies in 2009, followed by the arrival of its closing notice, was depressing. Too often, the shows that take a risk are not rewarded. So in a pleasant turn of events, this musical’s new beginning is brought to you by second chances.
Editor’s note: I was invited to see Avenue Q and did not rush it. There is a general rush policy in place for this show. Tickets go on when the box office opens for $26.50 each, up to two tickets per person. Seats are in the front row orchestra.