Star rating: ***½
For those unfamiliar with the hit Broadway musical Avenue Q, know this: The only similarity between this avenue and the Sesame Street of childhood are the brightly colored hand puppets. Elmo and the Cookie Monster tend to talk about crossing the street and counting to ten. On Avenue Q, the puppets have their own apartments, and they’ve graduated from remedial math to—quite literally—sex education.
It makes sense then that there were few children in the audience on the opening night of the nationally touring Avenue Q’s Washington stop. The snarky production and its many winks to popular culture attracted lots of twenty- and thirtysomethings—young enough that one lady whispered at intermission, “I’ve never seen such a young crowd at this theater.”
The musical showcases the struggles of that very generation when they come to realize they’re not always as special as Big Bird promised. The cast expresses these general feelings of frustration through songs such as “It Sucks to Be Me” and “I Wish I Could Go Back to College.” Still, don’t let the depressing titles fool you; the musical ends on an uplifting note and keeps the audience hooting for two hours with a heavy dose of irreverent humor.
Suspending disbelief is more necessary—and more difficult—in Avenue Q than in most plays. Each large and gaudy puppet is accompanied by a handler who provides the voice and body language during the scene. While the cast proves itself full of capable puppeteers, the real standout is Brent Michael DiRoma, who has a knack for expressing nuances of idealism and anguish into his characters. The other cast members might not be as adept with their hands, but their voice work is incredible. Jacqueline Grabois has a rich, lustrous tone whether she’s playing a starry-eyed romantic or a sultry sexpot.
The one-of-the-kind set has a personality of its own, bursting with lighting tricks and other awe-inspiring gimmicks (Bubbles! Animated segments! A disco ball!). At one point, a nightmare scenario reveals a giant puppet in a wedding dress towering over the apartment block.
Decades of Sesame Street watchers are all grown up, but with clever humor and shock value—expect puppet nudity—this show makes the gleeful transition from PBS to HBO.
At the Lansburgh Theatre until August 15. For tickets, $43 to $81, click here.