by John Stoltenberg
The intriguing tagline for Constellation Theatre Company’s 2015/16 season is “Playtime for Grownups,” which could not have been more appropriate on opening night of its Avenue Q—the wholly humable musical in a humdinger of a production. It’s going to be a huge hit. And it really is adult fun.
The famous show with childhood-invoking Sesame Street–style puppets about twentysomething life crises originated in 2003 with music and lyrics by Robert Lopez and Jeff Mars and book by Jeff Whitty. It has since become quite the phenom—produced so often that one can find multiple vendors online offering to rent the requisite puppets. The laugh-out-loud show has clearly hit a nerve along with the funny bone.
Perhaps it is worth asking: Why?
The songs and plotlines in Avenue Q touch on a catalog of concerns common to the generational life stage now known as millennial: career uncertainty, unemployability, financial insecurity, lack of focused purpose, fear of and longing for relationship commitment, sense of no future. Avenue Q also layers on even more personal problems: coming-out anxiety, everyday racism, masturbation, internet porn, loneliness…. Though that list sounds heavy, Avenue Q keeps everything light and lively. Real and relatable. Digestible and delightful even. For which we have to hand it to the hand puppets.
Not for nothing are puppets employed in play therapy with children. Puppets give permission to say what can’t be said and tell stories that can’t be told. The evergreen genius of Avenue Q is that it makes actor-operated foam and fur toys come alive as believable dramatic characters whose performance is totally disarming and whose subtextual therapeutic function is all about releasing unspeakable truths.
Avenue Q is playing on a revitalized 14th Street in a town that millennials have flocked to in droves. The jobs are here; the nightlife is here; the buzz is here. Their budgets are stretched but there are bucks coming in. DC is the nation’s epicenter of driven young people on the lower rungs of ladders leading to actual and relevant careers. So what gives with the enormous appeal of a decade-old musical set beside an inner-city tenement inhabited by under- and unemployed college grads who all believe their lives suck?
There’s a funny song in the show called “Schadenfreude,” from the German word that combines “harm” and “joy” and refers to the feeling of pleasure one can take in seeing the troubles of others. (You can read the lyrics here—like a lot of the script, they get coarse.) As a meta frame for the whole production, “Schadenfreude” is eloquent, because Avenue Q is the perfect perch from which to view with tickled pity the pathos of post-adolescent angst.
And what’s remarkable is that this experience is not an alienation effect. On the contrary, Constellation’s Avenue Q connects the audience to an important commonality though song and comedy and the ebullience of the cast.
Their joie de vivre is indelible and infectious. They sing, they dance, they skip, they twerk. Director Allison Arkell Stockman has achieved a sharp staging, with tight choreography by Rachel Leigh Dolan, that one cannot imagine being more enjoyable, performed by musical comedy talents one cannot imagine being more entertaining.
Seven actors play puppeteers, who are dressed in black but who, though “invisible” to all the other characters, appear fully present as performers: Matt Dewberry (Princeton), Katy Carkuff (Kate Monster), Alex Alferov (vivid as Nicky), Vaughn Ryan Midder (arresting as Rod/Trekkie Monster), Emily Zickler (enchanting as Lucy, also Mrs. Thistletwat), and Jenna Berk and Christian Montgomery (as the two Bad Idea Bears). Three actors play “people” characters (dressed colorfully in street clothes by Costume Designer Kara Waala): Mikey Cafarelli and Justine “Icy” Moral, as the two young lovers Brian and Christmas Eve, and Eben K. Logan, a standout as the landlord, Gary Coleman.
Musical Director Jake Null conducts a buoyant band of instrumentalists upstage of the cityscape scrim conceived and lit prettily by Scenic and Lighting Designer A. J. Gubon. Constellation’s authentic-looking puppets are indeed the real deal; they’re from the original Avenue Q designer, Rick Lyon, and whatever Puppet Coach Matthew Adwin McGee did sure got results: The entire cast’s puppetry skills are awesome. The actors not only speak in puppet voices; they somehow sing in those puppet voices as well. They’re amazing.
Still, the show’s unique appeal really does turn significantly on those silly puppets.
Constellation’s Avenue Q is fundamentally an uplifting puppet show for grownups. Grownups who are agemates of the characters and share similar indecisions and insecurities. Grownups who are older but can look back at a time when they were younger and life was less charted, less settled in its ways. That’s because Avenue Q speaks of a universal wisdom. And it does so with toys from childhood that liberate the id in our inner kid.