What if Sesame Street grew up and went to seed? What if its platitudes on generosity, racial harmony, and the specialness of each person became murky and qualified? Now suppose a freshly minted English BA named Princeton comes along, clueless and burdened with student debt. What might he learn about real life on the updated but downgraded street? These are the guiding premises of Tony Award–winning Avenue Q, the current musical staged at the newly remodeled Garvin Theatre at SBCC. You’ll recognize much of Sesame Street here: the dingy urban tenement set, a cast of felt and fuzzy Henson-inspired puppets with distinctive vocal characterizations, and TV screens for breakaway mini lessons on letters and counting. But there the comparison ends as Avenue Q turns down a cul-de-sac of raunchiness that would make Miss Piggy blush.
The cast and production staff demonstrate talent and finesse across the board with this show, clearly an effort that outshines the uneven quality of the material itself. Ryan Murray gives winning voice and character to Princeton. His love interest is Kate Monster (sung beautifully by Emily Jewell), a kindergarten teaching assistant who dreams of founding a school. Six other cast members operate a variety of puppet denizens, including the porn-obsessed Trekkie Monster (think Cookie Monster tweaked) and the Bad Idea Bears, sweetly sinister Care Bears who lead vulnerable young adults down paths of excess and self-destruction. The human characters include Janina Mason as Gary Coleman, the washed-up former child actor who now functions as street superintendent. David Potter and a small band provide accompaniment for the tuneful and frequently risqué jingles. Sets by Patricia L. Frank include a breathtaking moonlit lookout from the Empire State Building.
Avenue Q is most clever when translating the moral absolutes of childhood into more practical and nuanced updates. A recognition that “Everyone’s a Little Bit Racist” might actually aid race relations because it is conducive to tolerance. Generosity is laudable; however, generous people are vulnerable to manipulation, or, equally, the giver can be a selfish “good feelings” junkie. Specialness is important to self-esteem but can be a burden when it feeds a sense of entitlement or frustrated expectation. These lessons, taught through the sunshine didacticism of the puppets, are admirable irony. Less satisfying are the often jarring doses of pointless crudity. Or maybe they aren’t so pointless: Therapists know that puppets can help a patient to drop inhibitions through a distancing of identity. A puppet might be your repressed alter ego, something at once to stand in and stand behind. I’m sure there must be an outtake stored in a vault somewhere of Kermit the Frog swearing like a sailor.