It’s not often that the plight of well-educated, middle-class dreamers is told in something as grand as a full-scale musical. Musicals thrive on the epic, the tragic, or the nostalgic — usually not the lesser concerns of young people whose biggest problems in life are finding themselves and waiting for their parents’ next check to arrive. Such problems are hardly worthy of the word, especially compared with the real problems that the majority of the world’s population deals with on a day-to-day basis.
But still. While the struggle of the middle-class college grad may not be terribly exciting or unique, no one can ever say it’s not relevant, especially now that the Great Recession has given many of us plenty of time to question the worth of our BA degrees as we bus tables or run the cash register. And in fact, this is precisely how the famed puppet-musical Avenue Q opens: with the male puppet lead, Princeton, singing the plaintive “What Do You Do With a BA in English?” What indeed, Princeton?
Avenue Q sets out to (sort of) answer that question, following the lives of the two main characters, Princeton and Kate Monster — both puppets — and their friends who live in the same building on Avenue Q: Brian, an unemployed comedian who is engaged to Christmas Eve, a Japanese therapist; Rod and Nicky, best friends and roommates; Gary Coleman, child celebrity and the building’s super; and Trekkie Monster, the resident pervert.
Of these, Gary Coleman, Brian, and Christmas Eve are the only non-puppets, and they co-exist with their fuzzy neighbors in a world that is basically an adult version of Sesame Street. Cartoon sequences are shown on two TVs on the side of the stage, beginning with an Avenue Q theme song that is the Sesame Street theme grown up (“The sun is shining/it’s a lovely day/A perfect morning/for a kid to play/but you’ve got lots of bills to pay”). Rod and Nicky are real-world versions of Bert and Ernie, while Brian wears a Theo Cosby-style shirt and black jeans of the type that nearly every African-American male on television seemed to favor in the 1980s. The result is a hilarious, comforting, and surprising show that somehow lets you maintain the warm happy feelings of childhood even while Trekkie Monster is singing about how the internet is only for porn.
As you can imagine, staging a show that puts together people and puppets being operated by clearly visible actors has some unique challenges. Charleston Stage handles these so well, though, that the simple logistics of the whole thing are scarcely noticeable. The human cast interacts so naturally with the puppets, completely ignoring the actors whose arms snake out of the puppets’ torsos, that the suspension of disbelief is pretty complete.
Gabriel Wright, as Brian, could have walked off of Sesame Street and onto Avenue Q; his friendly grin, easy laugh, and sweet dance moves, not to mention the warmth with which he treats Kate Monster and the other puppets, would make the Street‘s Gordon and Susan proud. Maya Naff, a visiting actor from New York, has the challenging task of portraying the loud and bossy Asian woman, Christmas Eve, who walks the finest of fine lines between a character and pure stereotype. She does it magnificently, milking the comedy of her mean-yet-lovable Japanese character without going overboard. To give you a small idea of how hard this must be, and how great the potential for comedy, Christmas Eve’s big song is called “The More You Ruv Someone.”
But the night really belongs to the puppets. The actors all have the daunting task of playing several characters, sometimes talking for one while operating another, or holding a conversation between two at once. Josh Harris, who plays Nicky, the big furry perv Trekkie, and one of the Bad Idea Bears, perfected all three of his puppet voices: he’s got the nasal sweetness of Ernie, the Grover/Cookie Monster growl, and the creepy high voice that is the only way a Bad Idea Bear could ever sound — especially when he suggests to Princeton that he go hang himself.
Derek T. Pickens, who plays Princeton and the closeted homosexual Rod, has a unique way of working with his puppet that really works for him: rather than melting into the background and letting Princeton or Rod take over, he uses his expressive face to supplement what’s going on with his puppets and almost create a kind of composite puppet-man character. Finally, Vanessa Moyen seems born for this kind of thing: she has the quintessential girl puppet persona going for Kate Monster, and is incredibly responsive to each situation. When Kate flirts with Princeton, you can almost see the puppet blushing.
In the end, Avenue Q is all about simply making it work in your twenties: figuring out what you want, how you’re going to get it, and how to get through all the time in between now and then. It’s a simple premise to be sure but, at least in Avenue Q, it never slips into cliché — probably because the puppets make that pretty much impossible. Bravo to Charleston Stage for pulling off this unique and endlessly entertaining production.