Kids, go to your room. I need a word with your parents about a topic that is seriously adults-only.
Are they gone? Good. It's about puppets.
Yes, puppets. See, the rather shocking reality is that for too long, their lives have been trivialized. Turns out many of them have what doctors used to refer to as "complexes." Their hang-ups, in fact, run the gamut. Some are in total denial about their sexuality. Others harbor disturbing misconceptions about race. Still others sit transfixed in front of computers, endlessly surfing porn sites.
If you're still not convinced that those cuddly moppets could benefit from some time on tiny psychiatrists' couches, then I urge you to spend an eye-opening couple of hours at "Avenue Q," a waggishly entertaining new musical for grown-ups, currently at the Vineyard Theatre.
A surprise hit of the off-Broadway season, "Avenue Q" is a buoyantly self-assured parody of both children's television and the culture of political correctness that seeks to bind us all together in one big, comfy video village. Created by a bright new team that includes songwriters Robert Lopez and Jeff Marx, director Jason Moore and book writer Jeff Whitty, "Avenue Q" has proved such a satisfying mood-enhancer that it's making the move to Broadway. The show takes up residence at the Golden Theatre in early July. Its run at the nonprofit Vineyard ends on May 11.
"Avenue Q" is an encouraging event for the American musical. Just as shows of the past exploited the popular forms and musical styles of their day -- from the operettas of the 1920s to the rock operas of the 1970s -- this one adapts the format and sound of a genre with which millions of potential ticket-buyers (in this case, the boomer and Gen-X population) are intimately familiar. From the instant "Avenue Q" begins, with a sunny theme song blaring from a pair of TVs, and the lights coming up on the charmingly shabby brownstones of Anna Louizos's urban set, we know exactly what street in Public Television Land the writers have in mind.
The inhabitants of Avenue Q, a run-down byway in an unidentified outer borough, are a familiar melange of Muppetlike creatures (superbly designed by Rick Lyon) and an ethnically balanced assortment of human types. One flesh-and-blood denizen is a character named Gary Coleman; as portrayed by Natalie Venetia Belcon, he's both the local handyman and a down-on-his-luck actor. One difference from "Sesame Street" is that the puppets' manipulators are people who are visible at all times. Another is that the puppets are as blunt as rabid in-laws hooked on truth serum.
A recurring theme of "Avenue Q" is that while we instruct our children to contribute to the maintenance of a tolerant, nurturing universe, it's all lip service. From an early age, what they are really taught is to bite their tongues, to cloak their fixations and prejudices in a fog of antiseptic happy talk. In the topsy-turvy television world of "Avenue Q," however, the artificial air is suffused with vice and malice. A couple of adorable characters -- the Bad Idea Bears -- egg on the other puppets to ill-considered activities, like drinking binges and one-night stands. (Yes, perhaps for the first time on the legit New York stage, puppets fornicate.) And the songs are all bracingly frank, with titles like "If You Were Gay," "Schadenfreude," "You Can Be as Loud as the Hell You Want (When You're Makin' Love)" and "Everyone's a Little Bit Racist."
The musical's paper-thin story line has to do with an aimless yuppie puppet -- a yuppet? -- named Princeton (voiced by John Tartaglia) who has moved into one of the brownstones and yearns to fill his life with purpose. He's pursued by the demure Kate Monster (Stephanie D'Abruzzo), while another puppet neighbor, Rod (Tartaglia again), struggles to come to terms with being gay. For good measure, there's a human couple, a Japanese woman (Ann Harada) and a Jewish man (Alexander Gemignani), whose antics culminate in the staging of a funny multicultural wedding.
Tartaglia and D'Abruzzo, both professional puppeteers, are finds in the leading roles; it's fascinating how readily the personalities of puppet and puppet master fuse on a stage. Harada is at all times a hilarious caricature, and Belcon approaches the absurdity of injecting Coleman into the mix with ebullient goodwill. Though "Avenue Q" meanders at times, the show offers so many inspired moments that any downtime is quickly redeemed by wit. Walking away from a night on Avenue Q, your faith in the musical has been kindled anew. Hope, it seems, is a thing with lyrics.
Avenue Q, music and lyrics by Robert Lopez and Jeff Marx; book by Jeff Whitty. Directed by Jason Moore. Sets, Anna Louizos; costumes, Mirena Rada; lighting, Frances Aronson; sound, Brett Jarvis; music director, Gary Adler; puppet designer, Rick Lyon. With Phoebe Kreutz, Jennifer Barnhart, Alexander Gemignani. Approximately two hours. At Vineyard Theatre, 108 E. 15th St., New York, through May 11. Call 800-432-7250 or visit telecharge.com