The central conceit at the heart of the humor of Avenue Q is simple: what if puppets were vulgar, cynical and honest instead of cutesy, encouraging and happy? What if they cursed and drank and had sex? What if they sang about racism instead of togetherness? Etc. Etc. Etc.
Robert Lopez and Jeff Marx and Jeff Whitty’s show, now playing through June 24 at the Lyric Stage (and the Lyric’s highest grossing show of all time to date) stretches this concept until it’s barely there anymore.
I had heard over the years from friends and critics how funny this show was, but, alas, I didn’t find it very funny.
The jokes seemed dated (Gary Coleman as the superintendent? Hilarious!) and, worse, the ostensibly offensive jokes aren’t shocking or insightful; they merely lame attempts at South Park-esque rudeness. Songs like “Everyone’s a Little Bit Racist” or “The Internet is for Porn” seem so tame to me.
Now, I recognize that the show is 10 years old, but it’s obviously still getting productions all over the country and is the 21st longest-running Broadway musical. I truthfully don’t understand this. I guess it may have to do with the Broadway crowd; maybe to them Avenue Q is edgy and charmingly odious.
But, to me, it felt a little derivative of much better satires: The Simpsons, say, or South Park. Avenue Q came across more akin to Family Guy: a stream of jokes with little depth.
So, the story: Princeton (John Ambrosino), a newly graduated English major with little hope for the future (Get it? Because he’s an English major!), moves into Avenue Q, a street peopled by misfits and other similarly hopeless individuals, both human and puppet. There’s Kate Monster (Erica Spyres), a “monster” who teaches kindergarten and dreams of opening a school exclusively for monsters, who, we come to see, are treated as lower-class citizens. There’s Brian (Harry McEnerny V), a wannabe comedian, and his fiancé Christmas Eve (Jenna Lea Scott), a nagging Japanese woman who pronounces her R’s as L’s and so forth. (Her character is a good example of the failed offensiveness of the show. She’s such a cliché caricature that it isn’t really offensive; it’s just lazy.) There’s also Nicky (Phil Tayler) and Rod (Ambrosino again), a pair of friends whose existence can be summed up with a slight variation on the whole show’s conceit: What if Burt or Ernie was gay? Wouldn’t that be hilarious? And there’s also Gary Coleman (Davron S. Monroe), whose existence needs no more elaboration than that.
Anyway, Princeton is trying to find his purpose in life and the show focuses on these characters’ attempts to find meaning in a harsh world. There are some funny moments and one of the songs (“A Fine, Fine Line”) actually manages to be touching, which I found myself wishing the play sought more often. Instead, we have characters like Lucy the Slut (great name, fellas) who are such winks to the audience. Isn’t this so funny and interesting? A slutty puppet? Right? Right? Come on!
I do, however, want to commend the Lyric Stage––actors, directors and all––for doing their damnedest. They were all committed and talented and even pulled out a few humorous and tender moments.
But they were doomed from the start. Lopez, Marx and Whitty really, really wanted to be funny. They forgot to have heart.
[Avenue Q. Now through June 24. Lyric Stage Company of Boston. 140 Clarendon St. Back Bay. $25-$60. 617.585.5678. lyricstage.com]