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Theater Review: “Avenue Q” at Olney Theatre

The bawdy puppet musical provides plenty of adults-only laughs.

The cast of Avenue Q at Olney Theatre Center. Photograph by Stan Barouh.

The same year Avenue Q opened on Broadway, 2003, it won three Tony Awards, including Best Musical, and is now the 23rd longest-running musical on Broadway. These days, its particular blend of offensive humor, millennial navel-gazing, and puppetry feels perhaps less surprising than it once did—but even after more than a decade in existence, it’s still very, very funny, as ably proven in Olney Theatre’s current production, directed by Jason Loewith

The story begins with Princeton (Sam Ludwig), a recent college graduate who is looking for a purpose in life—and an apartment. It’s the latter search that leads him to Avenue Q, where he finds a cluster of homes occupied by a motley crew of humans and puppets—engaged couple Brian and Christmas Eve (Evan Casey and Janine Sunday), roommates Nicky (Stephen Gregory Smith) and Rod (Ludwig again), Kate Monster (Rachel Zampelli) and Trekkie Monster (also Smith), and the superintendent, former child star Gary Coleman (Kellee Knighten Hough). The new friends help each other through a spate of life problems, working through their feelings of aimlessness and their sexual frustration and confusion through song-and-dance numbers such as “If You Were Gay,” “The Internet Is For Porn,” and “Schadenfreude.” Set designer Court Watson recreates a believably shabby New York City block, and costume designer Rosemary Pardee puts the characters in a mishmash of low fashion (all the puppeteers are in varying shades of black and gray).

The setup pays clear homage to Sesame Street: The puppets are reminiscent of Jim Henson, and certain themes of the play are underlined by animated bits set to a chorus of children’s voices (JJ Kaczynski is behind the animation). But Avenue Q’s sensibility has more in common with South Park and Book of Mormon—suitably, as creator Robert Lopez partnered with the former’s Trey Parker and Matt Stone on the latter. Swear words and politically incorrect humor abound, as does meta commentary on the fact that most of the characters are puppets, as in a memorable and slightly disconcerting sex scene toward the end of the first act. 

With choreography by Bobby Smith and conductor Christopher Youstra behind the orchestra, the upbeat numbers are so high-energy and amusing that it can make the more sentimental songs seem to drag slightly by contrast. And the character of Christmas Eve, a deliberate amalgamation of Japanese stereotypes, begins to grate occasionally, despite Janine Sunday’s powerful performance. Almost all the cast members nimbly embody multiple roles throughout the play, but especially impressive is Zampelli, who switches effortlessly between Kate Monster’s girl-next-door innocence and cabaret singer Lucy the Slut’s overblown sexuality, at one point even having an entire conversation with herself. 

As one might expect from a raunchy musical involving puppets, the production requires a certain suspension of logic—Why are there monsters? What’s Gary Coleman doing there?—but Avenue Q will certainly make you laugh, and provides an evening well worth leaving the kids at home for.

Avenue Q is at Olney Theatre through July 6. Running time is about two hours and 15 minutes, with one intermission. Tickets ($32 to $65) are available online