Avenue Q

Now playing at New World Stages off-Broadway.

Avenue Q made its Broadway debut in 2003, but when the economic downturn hit, it downsized back to an off-Broadway theater, for which it is well suited. I never saw it in one of the grander theaters, but its scrappy striving seems to belong in a more cozy, modest space.

Not that the musical is modest in any sense. It’s hilariously crude, for starters, and it doesn’t lack for ambition. It could have been just one dumb joke—just the giddy shock value of a warped, gleefully perverse Sesame Street—and maybe sometimes it is just that. But taken as a whole, Avenue Q features more than enough wit and insight to elevate it above the baseness of its base. Like the best episodes of South ParkAvenue Q manages to be both jubilantly childish and darkly mature, shamelessly ribald and quietly profound.

Set in a rundown New York neighborhood, Avenue Q mimics Sesame Street in casually integrating people and monsters, human actors and puppets. The protagonist, Princeton (puppeteer Seth Rettberg), an idealistic young college graduate, moves into a shabby apartment building managed by real-life former child star Gary Coleman (Danielle K. Thomas, gamely navigating the awkwardness of the role now that Coleman has died). There Princeton meets lonely teaching assistant Kate Monster (puppeteer Sarah Stiles), questionable role models Brian and Christmas Eve (understudy Rob Morrison and Hazel Anne Raymundo), ambiguously gay roommates Rod and Nicky (Rettberg again and puppeteer Cullen R. Titmas), and porn-loving shut-in Trekkie Monster (Titmas again), among others. Searching for direction in life, Princeton experiences love and heartbreak and flounders a bit closer to adulthood, despite the fact that none of what he encounters is really what he expects.

The Sesame parallels are cute: Brian and Christmas Eve are skewed versions of wise grown-ups Luis and Maria. Rod and Nicky are dead ringers for Bert and Ernie (Rettberg and Titmas have the voices down cold), and Trekkie’s childish grammar and obsessive personality immediately evoke Cookie Monster. I still remember and love many of the songs from Sesame Street (“Sing,” “If I Were,” “Imagine That,” and “I Don’t Want to Live on the Moon” are delightful, whatever their provenance), and Q composer-lyricists Robert Lopez and Jeff Marx cultivate a similar aesthetic with simple, lilting tunes and clever, cutely didactic lyrics.

Of course, in Avenue Q, instead of “C Is for Cookie,” you get “The Internet Is for Porn”—the one song from the musical I’d heard before I saw it, which just goes to show that the Internet isn’t only for porn but also for, uh, songs about porn. But then, satiric overstatement is the norm here, occasionally in ways that make me wince given the lyrics’ pedagogic nature. There’s the germ of a provocative, powerful idea in “Everyone’s a Little Bit Racist,” for example, but the song quickly descends into smug, knee-jerk anti-PC sloganeering—which is, I suspect, the point. Still, it recalls Dave Chappelle’s famous discomfort with the success of his own Comedy Central show: when your satire is that nuanced, you have to wonder whether everyone is laughing at the right joke.

Further complicating matters, the show’s performers, both human and puppet, are terrifically expressive and charismatic, even when the humor is nasty and sort of mean. I had wondered how well the puppets would work in context, with the puppeteers completely exposed, but it’s surprisingly easy to adjust to seeing puppet and puppeteer emote together. Even more impressive, the three primary puppeteers—Rettberg, Stiles, and Titmas—each play multiple roles with completely distinct voices and mannerisms. I practically did a double-take when I realized that Stiles, so chirpy-voiced as Kate, was also providing Lucy’s chesty, sultry vamp of a voice.

And in the end, after all the high-concept cleverness, the musical’s conclusion really does hold poignance. There’s enough emotional truth—genuine pain neither condescended to nor indulged—to resonate far deeper than you’d expect from a dirty puppet musical. I didn’t really care about Princeton and Kate’s rocky relationship (though Kate’s ballad of romantic disappointment, “There’s a Fine, Fine Line,” is truly touching and memorable), but the full-cast finale, “For Now,” beautifully articulates how the impermanence of almost everything in life can be a curse, yes, but also a blessing. A strong end to a compelling, if uneven, show, “For Now” sticks with me (ironically, given its themes). It’s no “I Don’t Want to Live on the Moon,” but in a weird way, it, too, is sweet and open-eyed and wistful and wise.