Sweepin' the Tact Away

How to get to Avenue Q? Follow the laughter. And leave the kids at home.

Playhouse Square musicals Through January 27 at the Palace Theatre, Playhouse Square Center, 1518 Euclid Avenue, 216-241-6000.
Not your mother's Muppets: Kelli Sawyer as Kate Monster and Angela Ai as Christmas Eve.
Not your mother's Muppets: Kelli Sawyer as Kate Monster and Angela Ai as Christmas Eve.

Everyone knows helium-voiced Snuggle, the fabric-softener bear so ickily adorable, he makes you want to fwow up. But you can put your thoughts of teddy-bear mayhem aside, because there are two stuffed clones in town that look and sound just like Snuggle, but have the cold and devious soul of Hannibal Lecter.

Meet the Bad Idea Bears, two of the most inspired creations in the startlingly funny and comically bawdy Avenue Q, now at Playhouse Square Center. The bears appear when a character is experiencing stress, whispering to the character that he should just spend his last few dollars on a case of cold ones. Or, they suggest sweetly, Just hang yourself!

Don't worry, it all makes sense in context: Avenue Q is a very grown-up parody of Sesame Street, featuring humans and puppets interacting on a mean street in New York. But the lessons aren't about counting or the alphabet; they're about the travails of masturbation, porn, noisy sex, and being gay.

If it all sounds inelegant and distasteful, it isn't. Thanks to clever songs written by the show's creators, Robert Lopez and Jeff Marx, with a script by the aptly named Jeff Whitty, Q has a relentlessly up-tempo verve and sunny optimism. It just deals with topics that would make Big Bird molt and fling Elmo into prolonged catatonia.

A bouncy early number, "It Sucks to Be Me," introduces the major characters, who lament their particular fates. Among the three real people, Brian is unemployed and turning 33, while his Japanese wife, Christmas Eve, is a social worker/therapist without clients. The puppet Kate Monster has a big heart but no boyfriend, and Rod, a Bert-like closeted gay (like we didn't ever suspect that), and Nicky (easygoing in the style of Ernie) are two guys who live together in a contentious, perhaps pre-sexual arrangement.

But the one whom they all feel sorry for is Gary Coleman, whose Diff'rent Strokes fortune has been stolen by his folks, and who now ekes out a living as an apartment-building super. He's considered even more pathetic than Trekkie Monster, the furry internet-porn addict who's into nooky way more than cookies.

Into this roiling neighborhood comes puppet Princeton, a recent Ivy League grad who gets fired before his first day on his new job. Stuck with no money and an uncertain future, he begins searching for his purpose in life, singing, "What Do You Do With a B.A. in English?"

It all plays out on a set design by Anna Louizos that replicates the familiar Sesame Street stoops and uses drop-down screens to convey clever quasi-educational tidbits. When Princeton starts mulling over his purpose in life, a brief cartoon amusingly illustrates the concept. This technique is particularly effective later, when pictures of five bedside nightstands devolve into "one night stand," with an entirely salacious meaning.

The three "human" characters are played by Carla Renata, who gives Gary Coleman a defiantly bright demeanor; Cole Porter as unemployed Brian; and Angela Ai as the relentlessly realistic Christmas Eve.

But the real stars are the puppeteers who manipulate the saucer-eyed folks while singing in their characters' cartoony voices. Robert McClure does yeoman duty as both Princeton and Rod, creating two distinct personas while handling his musical chores with precision. Kelli Sawyer is equally skilled in her portrayal of Kate Monster and the slut Lucy, who steals Princeton for a time. Their song, "Everybody's a Little Bit Racist," is a dead-on send-up of the racial harmony fostered by Sesame Street. Additional puppet characters, including the aforementioned Bad Idea Bears, are managed adroitly by David Benoit and Minglie Chen.

Some of the jokes get a bit stale in the two-hour show. But there is always another outrageous ditty such as "I'm Not Wearing Underwear Today" to bring the naughty fun back in focus. And while sticklers for intricate plot and character development might feel shortchanged, it's pointless to resist a show that can actually make a toe-tapper out of "Schadenfreude," in which Gary Coleman and Nicky luxuriate in the misfortunes of others: "Being on the elevator when someone shouts 'Hold the door!'/Fuck you, lady, that's what stairs are for!"

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Christine Howey

Christine Howey has been reviewing theater since 1997, first at Cleveland Free Times and then for other publications including City Pages in Minneapolis, MN and The Plain Dealer. Her blog, Rave and Pan, also features her play reviews. Christine is a former stage actor and director, primarily at Dobama Theatre...
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