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At downtown Durham's award-winning Durham Performing Arts Center you sometimes need to look closely between long-running and aggressively advertised shows like The Lion King and Wicked to find very brief stays of absolute gems. This was the case with a two-night stand of the Broadway musical Avenue Q. Although I was not familiar with the show, the concept sounded original and fascinating, and it proved to be one of the most creative, funny, and musically satisfying experiences of all the big road shows I've seen at DPAC.
Most of us early era baby boomers recall growing up watching shows like Sesame Street, The Electric Company, and even Romper Room. In these worlds, we were patiently and lovingly guided through the obstacles of childhood and generally told that we are all special and that we could become and accomplish anything we set our minds to. The creators and producers of Avenue Q have one reaction to that warm and fuzzy pablum we were all fed: NOT! Where is all the advice and help when we are entering adulthood and branching out on our own and we really need realistic support? That simple concept is the core of this spectacular show that ran for six years on Broadway, won Tony Awards for Best Musical, Best Original Score, and Best Original Book, and has played all over the world.
Someone coming to the show with no information about its format or basic design would most likely at first be quite confused and disoriented. The cast consists of three human characters and eleven puppet characters, all of whom interact as if human. Five of the real actors act, sing, and dance while controlling one of three different types of puppets, which are reported to cost $10,000 each. After the entire company opens the show with "The Avenue Q Theme," we meet Princeton – and puppet Rod – in a situation we have all faced. The recent college graduate is looking for his first apartment in one of the "outer boroughs" of New York City as he sings "What Do You Do with a B.A. in English?" We then meet all the residents of Avenue Q (no such street in all of NY) as they vie and compete for having the most miserable existence in "It Sucks to Be Me." By now, you recognize that you are in the midst of a musical unlike anything you have ever seen, and it is a stunning mirror held up to all of our fears, insecurities, hypocrisies – and lust.
There is only the one set: a typical New York brownstone-type block used throughout both acts. However, plenty of elaborate lighting and special effects provide enough variety for the great songs, hilarious dialogue, and bizarre situations – like puppet sex and Trekkie Monster singing "The Internet is for Porn." There are also two monitors on either side of the stage where the videos hearken back to Sesame Street graphics.
Using puppets in lieu of humans allows some freedom that might not otherwise be tolerated – even in these modern times – but it is all done with much levity and great skill. There are also several songs which, while quite funny on the surface, also reveal the hypocrisy of much of society, like the full company production of "Everyone's a Little Bit Racist." Along these lines, Lisa Helmi Johanson does a hilarious send-up of Asian stereotypes as the character "Christmas Eve," especially in her standout solo of "The More You Ruv Someone."
Speaking of the songs, the award-winning music and lyrics are by Robert Lopez and Jeff Marx. They have created a score that is one of the few musicals in the past ten years that I wanted to hear again – on its own – as I walked out of the show. The book, by Jeff Whitty, is also pitch perfect in hitting many of our secret fantasies. Who among us, after some early adulthood failures, hasn't felt like "I Wish I Could Go Back to College," or "There is Life Outside Your Apartment," or, if we were lucky, "You Can Be as Loud as Hell You Want (When You're Makin' Love)."
Another issue dealt with is the angst of facing your sexual orientation, as in the very direct song "If You Were Gay," or the epitome of hiding that to friends as Rod (the puppet – I know, this gets confusing) sings the fall-out-of-your-seat, hilarious "My Girlfriend, Who Lives in Canada."
There is just too much to describe about this show. Nearly every number is a gem, and there is not a slack moment for the two-hour runtime. If possible, I would have stood in line right after it was done to see it again. Like they have done for several shows that have already been here, perhaps DPAC will invite Avenue Q back for a longer run. For now, we will have to settle for the original Broadway cast recording.