Three or four whiles back, actor John Malkovich gave The New York Times a tidy explanation for Broadway theater's fall from grace. It's dying, he said, because it depends on starving artists to fuel it, and that group is drying up as Manhattan opts for wholesale gentrification. Garish, tourist-friendly musicals with big-bucks backers enjoy through-the-roof attendance marks; meanwhile, the din scares away the unsung performing majority, who take their talent, idealism and empty bellies with them.
Amid Malkovich's commentary, there's a nagging irony about Avenue Q, The Old Globe Theatre's heavily hyped musical about a hand puppet's big-city problems and the ways around them. If those real-life starving artists were as philosophically honest as Princeton, the play's central character, Broadway would be a lot better off. Avenue Q itself, in fact, is an exception that may prove Malkovich's rule. It's a garish, tourist-friendly piece that won three 2004 Tony Awards, including that for best musical, and it's been running for four years in New York.
All that combined kind of makes Avenue Q an unwitting statement on big-time theater. And if you fret about the state of the art the way I do, the show (and all its raunchy endearments) is a very cute, engaging fix for your (and my) very lousy mood.
Princeton, operated by Robert McClure, is bustin' out on the heels of his move to New York, but the truth about his post-college marketability will soon come to call. He sets up shop on Avenue Q, the only place compatible with his budget. His neighbors, he soon finds, are loony with their own issues. Antsy mental health therapist Christmas Eve (Angela Ai) can't hold a client and is this close to badgering boyfriend Brian (Cole Porter) into marriage; Republican investment banker Rod (McClure) is gay and may have an undescended testicle; Kate Monster (Kelli Sawyer) is a lovelorn teaching assistant living under the unrelenting thumb of Mrs. Thistletwat (Minglie Chen), her boss. Their zany stories yield other sets of characters, like that Gary Coleman (Carla Renata), who gets off a few choice ones about suing his parents.
Hell of a place for Princeton to set about pining for his purpose in life-but that many problems in such close quarters are what director Jason Moore and librettist Jeff Whitty seek to exploit. Gobs and globs of four-letter words, puppet-sex featuring Princeton and Kate, the edgy wiles of Lucy the Slut (Sawyer), who brazenly declares that “Guilt is for amateurs”: Bring 'em on. In the end, they're no match for Moore's affection for Princeton. The director isolates him beautifully as an innocent reflection of, and an antidote to, everybody else's tribulations.
Composer Robert Lopez and lyricist Jeff Marx benefit from the saucy dialogue-that way, their bawdy numbers feel authentic, with the exceptions of oddly misplaced tunes like “Everyone's a Little Bit Racist” and “The Internet is for Porn.” They're funny, I suppose, but the topics' abrupt disconnections to the story will leave you scratching your head.
The peeps over in administration make it clear that Avenue Q is not associated with the Children's Television Workshop, The Jim Henson Company or the latter's legendary Sesame Street Muppets. Wise move-the figures are inspired by guys like Cookie Monster and Bert and Ernie; in fact, Marx calls the show a “love letter” to the late Henson. But these ain't your mother's Muppets. They're dealing with adult problems that center on relationships, jobs and life's ultimate meaning. Eventually, Princeton and his friends learn to live in the moment and let the solutions come to them. They travel a well-crafted route in getting to that point. If they'd been aspiring actors, they'd make a good argument against Malkovich's sobering conjecture.
This review is based on the opening-night performance of July 11. Avenue Q runs through Aug. 5 at The Spreckels Theatre, 121 Broadway. $19-$85. 619-23-GLOBE.
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The North Park Vaudeville & Candy Shoppe, San Diego's smallest performance venue, needs to fill just about all its 35 seats to ensure a meaningful actor-audience exchange. On Friday the 13th, Black Kat Theatre came vaguely close to the mark, regaling about 20 with The Living Newspaper-Summer Edition, its take on local and national developments through the first half of 2007.
Black Kat touts itself as a left-leaning political entity, routinely staging Living Newspaper shows as the resident company at a Point Loma tavern. This time, gas prices, gay marriage, the Iraq war and the Virginia Tech tragedy are among the topics under scrutiny-yet through it all, director Tisha Tumangan makes it known she's not exactly thrilled with the Clinton and Obama presidential bids, either.
Do not expect great theater here, or anything close to it. Do expect the writing to exceed the threadbare level of performance. The piece appears badly under-rehearsed, but it's also a ragtag company's honest effort to elevate the level of public debate.
The Living Newspaper-Summer Edition runs through July 21 at the North Park Vaudeville & Candy Shoppe, 2031 El Cajon Blvd., North Park. $10. 619-645-1158.