Avenue Q defied the odds when it transferred from the Vineyard Theater to Broadway. Avenue Q defied the odds when it won Tony Awards for best book, score and musical, against popular juggernaut Wicked.
Avenue Q defied the odds again when, at its closing performance, lead producer Kevin McCullum announced that the show would transfer back off-Broadway, to the 499-seat Stage Three at New World Stages. He and his colleagues believed there was still a life in the show and that it was relevant more now than ever.
They are correct. Avenue Q remains one of the best, most satisfying musicals in New York City. I've seen it before, once right after it opened on Broadway and once in London. It was greeted with rapturous applause every time. If the reception at New World Stages is any indication, it will defy the odds again and have a long, prosperous run off-Broadway, back where it started.
Hailed as the love child of Sesame Street and South Park, Avenue Q uses human characters and puppets to relate the stories of poor young people living on the poor, rundown Avenue Q, a fictitious thoroughfare in New York City. They sing their struggles (trying to find a purpose, trying to make money) and their discoveries (that everyone is a little bit racist, that the internet is for porn). Princeton just graduated from college with a B.A. in English. Kate Monster is a kindergarten teacher's assistant looking for a boyfriend. Brian wants to be a comedian and his fiancee, Christmas Eve, is a therapist with no clients. THE Gary Coleman (played by a woman) is the superintendent of their building.
The cast is made up of Q-stalwarts, actors who have performed their roles either on Broadway or on tour. With the exception of Anika Larsen (Kate Monster/Lucy T. Slut), the cast is perfectly serviceable—no worse than their predecessors, but not really up to their levels, either.
Seth Rettberg does well as Rod, the closeted gay Republican (who rooms, a la Bert and Ernie, with Nicky), but doesn't really find the right chord as Princeton. (The very visible sweat pouring down his face and creating stains on his gray shirt is distracting, as well.) Cullen Titmas as Nicky has trouble reaching the high notes, but is a fine Trekkie Monster. Danielle K. Thomas (Gary) and Nicholas Kohn (Brian) are both respectable, as is Maggie Lakis, essentially the second hand in some of the puppets. Sala Iwamatsu manages to tone down Christmas Eve from full-on racial stereotype to someone fairly real.
It is only Larsen who manages to equal and surpass her original cast predecessor, Stephanie d'Abruzzo. Using her extremely expressive face, Larsen creates another character, one that isn't on her hand: herself. She acts the role so well that I found myself watching her more than the puppets. She's simply sensational.
In a more intimate theater, the show takes on an even more in-your-face nature. The giant blow-up Kate Monster, for instance, is even funnier when it overtakes a more compact stage (the set, designed by Anna Louizos, was moved directly from the Broadway production, with unspecified modifications.)
There are certain changes in the orchestration, which I understand were implemented years ago. Robert Lopez and Jeff Marx's score sounds as good as ever, though the amplification (sound by Acme Sound Partners) is far too severe. Jeff Whitty's script is timelier than ever.
Avenue Q is even more relevant today than it was in 2003 when it began. As someone graduating college in 207 days (but who's counting?), I certainly can relate more to the characters now than I did when I first saw it...especially considering that I'll come away with a Liberal Arts degree in a field with no jobs (journalism).
Only one clear aspect of the show has been changed for 2009, a certain line, right at the very end, a reference to a certain former U.S. President. Is the replacement as funny? Not really. But it works.