Politically incorrect ‘Avenue Q’ more than bawdy puppets

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, April 6, 2011

By Katie Scarvey
ěSesame Streetî became an institution by assuring children that they were both unique and, in essential ways, just like everyone else.
The musical ěAvenue Qî riffs on the classic childrenís show but scrapes off the Sesame-flavored sugar and adds a liberal helping of puppet raunchiness to appeal to an older audience. After all, many of us who grew up on Sesame Street have gotten a bit cynical after having been around the block a time or two.
The three-time Tony Award-winning musical will continue through Sunday at the Knight Theater in Charlotte.
Itís the story of Princeton, a recent college grad who finds himself in New York City wondering how heíll leverage that B.A. in English. He lands on Avenue Q, the only neighborhood he can afford, where he finds himself immersed in the messiness of real life and realizing that determining his lifeís purpose might not be as easy as heíd thought it would be.
Avenue Q is populated with puppets, operated with consummate skill by actors who show great range by handling more than one puppet.
Ashley Eileen Bucknam toggles magnificently between sweet Kate Monster and Lucy the Slut. David Colston Corris plays floundering college grad Princeton, as well as investment banker Rod, who is struggling with his submerged homosexuality. Michael Liscio handles Rodís roommate Nicky and Trekkie Monster, who has an internet porn obsession.
Just as it is on Sesame Street, some of the denizens of Avenue Q are humans: thereís Japanese therapist Christmas Eve (Lisa Helmi Johanson), who has a hard time keeping clients despite two masterís degrees; her slacker fiance Brian (Tim Kornblum), who wants to be a comedian; and building superintendent Gary Coleman (Anita Welch), the over-the hill star of ěDiffírent Strokes.î
The tone is set with the ebullient ěIt Sucks to Be Me.î In the chorus, the question is posed: ěIs there anybody here it doesnít suck to be?î
And the implied answer is no, not really; suckiness is just part of the human condition.
The show revels in addressing subjects that most people have a hard time discussing. The Avenue Q characters put it all out there, cheerfully acknowledging that ěEveryoneís a Little Bit Racistî (one of the showís more memorable songs).
There are also reassurances that people might be more open-minded than youíd expect: ěIf you were gay/Thatíd be OK,î Nicky sings to the horrified, still-closeted Rod.
Still, people being people, the concept of schadenfreude ó our enjoyment of othersí misfortunes ó is also explained and validated.
Adding to the witty, wicked fun are the Bad Idea Bears, who, despite being somewhat reminiscent of the lovable Care Bears, tend to urge people on (in angelic little voices) to do things like engage in drinking games before an early morning kindergarten class.
Ultimately, the play is consoling and uplifting in its celebration of our flawed humanity. The last number, ěFor Now,î is surprisingly deep in its implications, despite its fairly simple lyrics.
Thereís life, love, work, happiness, discomfort, but itís all ěonly for now.î Everything, then, is temporary, whether itís good or bad, and realizing that can help us endure the bad and fully embrace the good.
Make no mistake, though: despite its essential sweetness, ěAvenue Qî is not a show for children, and parents may even want to think twice about taking high school students. Thereís lewdness, profanity and naked puppets getting naughty. If youíre easily offended, you might want to wait for a less edgy show.
I wasnít offended ó just sorry that the show never really answered the eternal question Iíve always wrestled with: ěWhat do you do with a B.A. in English?îěAvenue Q,î is playing at the Knight Theater at the Levine Center for the Arts, 430 S. Tryon St., Charlotte. Tickets are $20-$90. For more information, visit www.blumenthalarts.org or call 704-372-1000.