Avenue Q at Orpheum Theatre

It’s one of the enduring mysteries of the theater, and it goes back thousands of years, the way masks and puppets can take on such astonishingly lucid life. Every movement, gesture, every tilt of the head is amplified and what we get is bigger, richer, funnier, more alive than could be possible with mere human beings. I’ll leave it to analysts smarter than me to determine how and why this happens. All I know is, when it works, this ancient and rough magic thrills.

And it works beautifully in Avenue Q (at the Orpheum, downtown Minneapolis, 910 Hennepin, through April 18, HennepinTheatreTrust.org). Here, the puppeteers are perfectly visible: each character is held in the arms of actors who speak the puppet’s lines, sing their tuneful songs (composed by Robert Lopez and Jeff Marx, also responsible for the “original concept”), move them around the set (a functional design by Anna Louizos, but with some cool surprises). But quickly we learn to ignore the humans and focus on the puppets. They’re more colorful, more fun and they bring the otherwise ho-hum story to vivid and compelling life. Brilliantly designed by Rick Lyon, the puppets bear more than a passing resemblance to those created by Sesame Street, but there is (said the critic, nervously looking over his shoulder) absolutely no connection. Whatever their provenance, they work like gangbusters.

Avenue Q‘s story: boy (Brent Michael DiRoma) finds a place in an out-of-the-way NYC neighborhood, the eponymous Avenue Q. There, boy meets girl (Jacqueline Grabois), loses job, goes slightly crazy, has sex with girl, gets nervous, loses girl, gets even crazier, then, via an hilarious series of complications, gets girl back. There are some deliciously subversive plot twists, e.g., the coming out of the gay character (also done by Mr. DiRoma), Gary Coleman the former child actor now building superintendent (gleefully played by Nigel Jamaal Clark), Christmas Eve (the shrill and hootingly funny Lisa Helmi Johanson), the transformation of Lucy the Slut (Ms. Grabois again). And of course there is the delightful puppet sex, the details of which I will leave to your overheated imaginations.

The songs reinforce this nifty combination of sweet and scary: “It Sucks To Be Me”, the now famous “The Internet Is For Porn”, “Schadenfreude”, “The Money Song”, etc. Tunefully original, the songs, along with the puppets and the excellent book (Jeff Whitty), make this show work.

One thing I immediately noticed about the opening night crowd: it was young, with many fewer grayhairs and many twenty and thirty-somethings. Congrats to the creators of Avenue Q for making something that younger play-goers want to see, and kudos to the Hennepin Theatre Trust and Broadway Across America for finding a way to market to this underserved and hugely important demographic.

This is the second time the show has passed through town. HowWasTheShow.com reviewed its first incarnation, and you can check out that notice here.


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