This was my first excursion down the racy, irreverent rabbit hole that is Avenue Q. The uproariously funny, phenomenally furry Sesame Street send up featuring music and lyrics by Robert Lopez and Jeff Marx first hit the Broadway stage way back in 2003, sweeping up the top Tony Awards.
Since then, it has dropped jaws in regional productions around the country, including a previous go at Charleston Stage in 2011. Now, the company dusts off the fur once more to add a little "Oh no, he didn't" antics to its fortieth anniversary season. Directed by Marybeth Clark, the impressive and polished production features top notch musical direction by Sam Henderson.
As the mother of a young child, I've lately been dutifully, and quite happily, ingesting Pre-K pablum in large servings. And while I owe a world of debt — and more than a few peaceful moments — to the developmental goldmine that is PBS, a little side dish of subversion of all that gosh darn earnestness was certain to do my palate good.
As much I already knew about the infamously outrageous show before I darkened the door of Dock Street Theatre, my knowledge of pending shock-and-awe did nothing to temper the guilty pleasure of bearing witness to fornicating puppets; toe-tapping tunes crooning everyone's inherent racism; and curdled quasi-Care Bears who have seriously broken bad.
In short, Avenue Q is a proposition that holds up in delicious shock value, all the more so within the stately wood-paneled walls of the historic theater. What's more, a merry mash up of public TV idealism with the underbelly of today's society seems just the ticket for our complex world. After all, as it's no stretch to contemplate Lucy, the new and naughty puppet in the neighborhood, when we are forever gleaning gory details of tawdry peccadilloes lurking in the doorway of venerated American institutions such as our very White House. (The parallels aren't lost in this production either, by the way.)
Yes, there seems to be a hot mess on this thinly veiled version of Sesame Street and pretty much everywhere else these days, but that doesn't mean Charleston Stage won't still deliver a supremely pitch-perfect production of Avenue Q. And that is, incidentally, no pint-sized feat. After all, it's quite a trick of a show for most of its cast, requiring them to both command and compete with their very own hands.
In an abject reversal of the Broadway standard, the leads playing puppets must chuck the razzle dazzle for simple black shirts and pants, deferring to the adorably deplorable deeds of their felt friends. Before you settle into the rhythms of the show, you may feel a bit of whiplash from person to puppet, but soon enough they synthesize in some terrific performances. They not only hold your attention, but they also emotionally engage you in the plight of the monsters, newbies and resident humans who come together on Avenue Q, and try to make sense of their lot on a less than desirable block in New York City.
Now about those performances. Playing both the love-starved Kate Monster and her wanton nemesis Lucy, Caroline Connell shines, bringing terrific acting and vocal chops to both roles. As recent college grad Princeton, Cody Rutledge manages to imbue the role with empathy – while also creating curious chemistry with Connell in his scenes courting Kate Monster. They also wield the show's special brand of satire in songs like "Everyone's a Little Bit Racist," which folds in other members of the cast.
Rutledge creates requisite sparks in his other role, too. Rod, a closeted puppet with a striking resemblance to Bert, struggles with his sexuality and longing for Nicky, an Ernie double. And that brings me to Stephen Scott Evans, a powerful, delightful presence as Rod's love interest Nicky. He brilliantly delivers the downright hilarious number "If You Were Gay," with an assist from Rutledge as the horrified Rod.
The humans in the neighborhood lend greatly as well. As the aspiring comic Brian, Connor Sullivan is a merry mix-up of Jeff Bridges and Jim Carrey. His exasperated wife, Christmas Eve, is played with comic perfection by Grace Hamashima, a tough part given the far-from-P.C. tenor of the role that demands comedy prevail over its intended cringe. As Gary Coleman, the child-actor-turned-landlord, Abriana Quinones brings spunk and surety.
While it pokes fun at the oversimplified pills we swallowed in our formative years, Avenue Q also elevates us out of the associated cynicism. Quite ingeniously, it manages to get us to root wholeheartedly for puppet love and human harmony. And that's the show-stopping sleight of hand that makes this work – and this production – such a hands-down hit.