Stage

Avenue Q is artistry, no strings attached

TAMPA

Avenue Q is known for its bawdy puppets, and they are a blast, but what really makes the show such a delight is its witty score, which ranges from a tuneful ballad on the uselessness of a B.A. in English to Schadenfreude, a hilarious take on the German word that means happiness at the misfortune of others.

Sesame Street has been the babysitter for several generations of kids, but one of its greatest legacies may turn out to be this musical by Robert Lopez and Jeff Marx (music and lyrics) and Jeff Whitty (book). The show opened Tuesday night at Tampa Bay Performing Arts Center.

There are at least half a dozen superbly catchy songs in Avenue Q, topped by the seven-part tour de force It Sucks To Be Me, an anthem of sorts for every 20-something who is maxed out on credit cards, can't get anything but a temp job, has a dump for an apartment and doesn't have a boyfriend. Then there's the offhand brilliance of Everyone's a Little Bit Racist, typical of the show's gleeful indulgence in stereotyping just about everyone, from blacks and Asian-Americans to Mexican busboys and Poles.

The seven principal cast members bring loads of charm to their sarcastic characters. Four of the actors operate a variety of puppets that resemble the Muppets, including a direct takeoff of Cookie Monster (Trekkie Monster, an Internet porn addict played by David Benoit). Sesame Street's Bert and Ernie (long thought to be gay in urban legend) are recalled by fussbudget Rod (Robert McClure) and slacker Nicky (Benoit), who also bring to mind Felix and Oscar from The Odd Couple.

The boy-meets-girl-and-so-on theme of Avenue Q is carried out by the fresh-faced duo of McClure, playing recent college grad Princeton, and Kelli Sawyer, playing kindergarten assistant Kate Monster. Mix Tape, their falling-in-love song, is a beauty.

Sawyer is especially appealing, playing not just Kate but the schoolteacher's vampy rival, Lucy, a dead-on Mae West spoof. She can be passionately romantic in belting out the torch song There's a Fine, Fine Line ("between love and a waste of time''), while also coming across as a guy's best friend in relating to Princeton, Trekkie Monster and Brian (Cole Porter), a would-be TV talk-show comic in red sneakers. Brian's fiance, Christmas Eve (Angela Ai), is a therapist with no clients beyond her neurotic friends from the neighborhood.

Carla Renata has the non-puppet role of Gary Coleman — yes, that Gary Coleman, the has-been former child actor from Diff'rent Strokes, now the apartment building superintendent of Avenue Q. The dreadlocked Renata, a comic powerhouse in rugby shirt, coveralls and tool belt, teams up with the Bad Idea Bears (Benoit and Minglie Chen) to cheer on the infamous puppet sex scene.

Director Jason Moore established a smart tone for the show, which borrows from another TV classic, Rowan and Martin's Laugh-In, in farcical bits done from windows of the dingy apartment building in numbers like The Internet Is for Porn. Princeton's aria to finding himself, Purpose, features singing cardboard boxes that are so cool.

The puppetry takes precedence over dance in Avenue Q, which has good-natured if minimal choreography by Ken Roberson. But there is one supremely inspired dance homage, the fantasy ballet by Rod and Nicky, a puppet pas de deux. The roommates' duet, If You Were Gay, features some marvelously funky Spike Jones-style orchestrations from the band in the pit, conducted by Andrew Graham.

True to its Sesame Street roots, Avenue Q is designed to sound like a TV show, so it's loud, with two pillars of speakers flanking the stage. Sometimes the racket overwhelms the clever lyrics, as in a chorus of I Wish I Could Go Back to College. To extend the morning TV theme, there are a pair of video screens that periodically descend for animation sequences to illustrate songs.

From a seat eight rows from the stage, the Avenue Q actors and puppets came across vividly. Some of the nuances of the performances were undoubtedly lost in the upper galleries of 2,600-seat Morsani Hall. The woman next to me astutely observed that for the most part, she focused on the puppets, but when a number called for emotion, her attention shifted to the actors.

The biggest roar from the crowd Tuesday came at the reference to George Bush in the finale's catalog of things that are "only for now!'' A crack about Scientology also got a big laugh. There's even some shrewd financial advice for these troubled times from Trekkie Monster: "In volatile market, only stable investment is porn!''

In an omission that would irritate Rod (a show queen whose favorite book is Broadway Musicals of the 1940s), TBPAC's CenterBill doesn't have a song list.

John Fleming can be reached at (727) 893-8716 or fleming@sptimes.com.

>>If you go

Avenue Q

Six shows remain through Sunday at Tampa Bay Performing Arts Center. $32.50-$72.50. (813) 229-7827; tbpac.org.

Avenue Q is artistry, no strings attached 04/02/08 [Last modified: Thursday, April 3, 2008 1:37pm]

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