The scathing irreverence of “Avenue Q” sounds even spikier 11 years after the show’s Broadway debut. One must credit the sheer genius of its “Sesame Street”-busting premise, but kudos also go to Olney Theatre Center’s zippy revival, staged with well-calibrated abandon by artistic director Jason Loewith.
In Olney’s main stage space, which seats about 450, the show feels intimate. None of the acid-etched lyrics get lost. And what lyrics they are! The creators of “Avenue Q” must have had second sight or something, because their 2003 musical resonates today, touching on jobless college grads, gay issues, race and sexual impulse control.
Olney’s uniformly first-rate cast, some of them voicing and manipulating puppets as their characters’ avatars, sing a crackerjack score that includes “Everyone’s A Little Bit Racist,” “The Internet is for Porn,” “Schadenfreude” and “I Wish I Could Go Back to College.” The latter song includes the line “and live in a dorm with a meal plan again.” How many 20-somethings have thought that of late?
Adults who aren’t easily offended can savor the pungency of every rude, raunchy, politically incorrect line as “Avenue Q” jauntily douses the “Sesame Street” glow that people 50 and younger basked in as kids. Composer-lyricists Robert Lopez and Jeff Marx and book writer Jeff Whitty have done to puppet-centric children’s TV what “The Simpsons,” “South Park” and “Family Guy” did to kiddie cartoon shows. (Lopez is also a co-creator of “The Book of Mormon.”)
The denizens of “Avenue Q,” most in their 20s and 30s, can barely make their rent. Set designer Court Watson has put up an aptly dingy block of row houses and placed the small, snappy orchestra (led by Christopher Youstra) on a roof. Costume designer Rosemary Pardee has dressed the cast in downmarket duds.
Sam Ludwig, who aced the lead in Olney’s “How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying” last February, is a bundle of idealistic energy as Princeton, the musical’s protagonist. Just out of college, he loses his new job before he even starts. He sings about finding his “Purpose” in life, but his puppet wears a Charlie Brown-style sweater vest, so you worry about the quality of Princeton’s luck. He begins a tentative romance with Kate Monster (Rachel Zampelli), a winsome assistant kindergarten teacher who hopes to start a school for minority monsters, a.k.a. “people of fur,” like her. But Princeton listens to the Bad Idea Bears (Tracey Stephens and David Landstrom) and succumbs to the temporary lure of Lucy the Slut (also Zampelli).
Down the block live flatmates Nicky (Stephen Gregory Smith and Rod (Ludwig again). Nicky suspects that Rod may be gay. He sings “If You Were Gay” to reassure him that they’d still be pals.
Among the neighbors who don’t have puppets is former child star Gary Coleman (Kellee Knighten Hough, in a cap and overalls), portrayed as a broke and cynical adult (the real Coleman died in 2010) scraping by as an apartment super. Brian (Evan Casey), a struggling stand-up comic, has just lost his day job and sings “It Sucks To Be Me,” soon joined by everyone else. Brian’s Japanese-born fiancée, Christmas Eve (Janine Sunday), a social worker, speaks in a stereotyped accent. At one point she belts out a ballad of advice to Kate Monster — “The More You Ruv Someone.”
The shorter second act loses some momentum, now that the initial shock of the show’s incorrectness has passed. Yet there’s still that musical theater itch to end on a hopeful note. In the finale, “For Now,” the characters come to accept life’s ups and downs: “Everyone’s a little bit unsatisfied/Everyone goes ‘round a little empty inside.”
That’s the spirit!
Horwitz is a freelance writer.