Thursday, March 12, 2009

“Avenue Q”: no easy street for CMT

l to r: Maggie Lakis, Trekkie Monster, David Benoit
Below: Maggie Lakis, Nicky, Robert McClure

There are some shows you either love or hate. “Avenue Q,” the latest offering by California Musical Theatre, is likely to be one of them. When the show opened on Broadway in 2003 it drew raves from the New York Times and the New Yorker. But not quite six years later it somehow comes off dated, despite its dazzling showmanship. Or, to quote that eminent sage Yogi Berra, “It’s déjà vu all over again.”

The show’s creators—Robert Lopez, Jeff Marx and Jeff Whitty—employed an original conceit: almost all of the characters would be puppets in the hands of actors and singers visible on stage. Thus we get a visible metaphor, a mock equation between the innocence of Sesame Street and the dark sense of failure and cynicism emanating from the locale: Avenue Q, a slum street in an unspecified outer borough of New York.

On a captivating set, representing the tenement that houses the characters, we are in awe as Robert McClure, Anika Larsen, David Benoit and Maggie Lakis manipulate the puppets while belting out the songs. Though we see who’s really singing, our eyes are drawn to the puppets’ mouths.

Yet there’s a striking omission from the playbill—a list of songs. Aren’t the songs a big reason we go to musicals? And in the song titles we discover the stark contrast between the spirits of Sesame Street and Avenue Q. After the opening theme, the next three numbers are titled “What do you do with a B.A. in English,” “It sucks to be me” and “If you were gay,” this last sung by two puppets who suspect that one of them, at least, is gay.

The next song defines the core theme of the show, “Purpose,” where the denizens of this world struggle to find out what they want to do with their lives. But the satirical edge prevails with “Everyone’s a little bit racist” and “The Internet is for porn.” This last, with its dig at corruption through technology, is funny the first time around, but the show dulls it with repetition.

The one straight and thoughtful song, also reprised in the second act, is “There’s a fine, fine line,” with its witty observation that “there's a fine, fine line between love and a waste of time.” If the show made more of this thought, along with its central theme of purpose, it would at least express a weltanschauung (a world view) that would give ballast to even the lightest of musicals.

Still, Avenue Q does entertain some heavy-duty German, as in the song “Schadenfreude,” a tribute to the idea of taking pleasure in the suffering of others. It’s hard to avoid mental images of the Holocaust and genocide. Perhaps if the writers took less interest in Lucy the Slut, and the penny tossed off the Empire State Building and rendering her temporarily brain dead, the show might have developed some substance instead of being a collection of cheap shots.

But to be fair, much of Avenue Q’s sense of being old hat is a result of a radical change in cultural values during the years since it first appeared. And the change is mostly among women. Not long ago “Cosmopolitan” emphasized make-up and clothes. But this month’s cover hawks stories like “His Biggest Sex Secrets,” “Is He Normal Down There?” and “An Orgasm Almost Killed Her.”

And if you subscribe to HBO you can sometimes watch Lisa Lampenelli butcher every taboo she can think of. But if you seek tuneful entertainment and an escape from worrying about the world, you’ll get a kick out of the tuneful and often clever “Avenue Q.”

“Avenue Q” continues through March 22 at Sacramento’s Community Center Theater, 1301 L Street. Performances are Tuesday through Saturday evenings at 8 p.m. with matinees on Thursday, Saturday and Sunday at 2 p.m. Tickets are $16.50 to $61.50, on sale at the Community Center Theater box office; the Wells Fargo Pavilion Box Office, 1419 H Street, outlets, or online at Or call (916) 557-1999, (916) 808-5181 or (808) 225-2277. Call (916) 557-1198 for group orders.

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