By Hubert Ta
I don’t remember much about “Sesame Street,” but I can recall the basic concept: to tell stories and life lessons that children could use later on in life. Elmo, Big Bird, Oscar the Grouch, Cookie Monster and all the other characters interacted with real people and generated children’s TV that captured their attention and cultivated their minds. “Avenue Q” is sort of like a nostalgic version of “Sesame Street” — except that your memories have now been clouded by adulthood realities, coarse language and a fleeting sense of an optimism-cynicism dynamic. Here, the puppeteers are fully visible, and the discussion about politics, race and romance is frequent. Additionally, adult characters like the Bad Idea Bears resemble the polar opposite of “Sesame Street”; their sweet, innocent voices guide the protagonists towards horrible decisions like binge drinking.
“Avenue Q” was written by Robert Lopez (“The Book of Mormon,” “Frozen”) and Jeff Marx, and premiered on Broadway in 2003 to critical acclaim. Its central story about Princeton, a recent college graduate finding his way amidst the realities of adulthood captivated audiences, ran on Broadway until 2009, and won three Tonys, beating “Wicked” for Best Musical. A satirical adult version of “Sesame Street,” “Avenue Q” revels in its contemporary issues and discussions of adulthood, directly confronting controversial issues through wit and song, further contributing to its parody of “Sesame Street” and other children’s programming that focus on the idea that everyone is special. “Avenue Q” begs to differ.
At UCI’s Claire Trevor School of the Arts, “Avenue Q” has been updated for 2017. The original premiered in 2003 during the George W. Bush presidency, where social media was in its infancy and the Internet was steadily evolving. Director Don Hill’s update now contends with a different era, where smartphones are everywhere, gay marriage is legal, social media continues to grow, and Donald Trump is the president. But the conversation in “Avenue Q” about societal issues is just as fresh as it was 14 years ago; concerns over race, politics, religion, sexual orientation and technology are still present and continue to shape the cultural and societal landscape of the United States.
The most interesting thing about “Avenue Q” is the usage of puppets alongside real actors and the synchronization of the puppeteers and their puppets. Director Hill described that through the tutelage of Puppet Master Jonathan Kidder, the student cast has been trained in the art of puppetry and its variety of skills, “dealing with movement, dealing with dialect, dealing with the character and they’re dealing with the mechanics of keeping themselves open to the audience” in the first puppet show of its kind at Claire Trevor. The work clearly shows, as throughout all the songs and jokes, the puppets themselves come alive through their puppeteers; within the first couple of minutes, the puppets become the center of attention and you stop focusing on the puppeteers. Each character becomes their own as a result.
There’s Princeton (David Šášik), a recent college graduate, Kate Monster (Melissa Musial), a kindergarten teaching assistant, Rod (Nick Adams), a closeted gay investment banker and Nicky (Jacob Ben-Shmuel), Rod’s best friend and roommate. Other characters round out the neighborhood’s scope, with Trekkie Monster (Daniel Solomon), a porn-obsessed resident, Brian (Mark Metzger), an unemployed comedian, Christmas Eve (Cailen Fu), Brian’s Japanese immigrant fiancée and Gary Coleman (Eriel Brown), a former child star and building superintendent.
These characters are then combined with the musical’s shining trait: the sheer prowess of its comedy and its willingness to joke about things in a manner that seems equally lighthearted and heavy-handed. From the first minute to the last, “Avenue Q” grips you with its comedic undertones and innuendos through its dialogue and rather dilapidated city street setting, as well as its songs that comedically push the story forward. “What Do You Do with a B.A. in English?” embarks on a journey of uncertainty in post-graduate life while “It Sucks to Be Me” assesses everyone’s general lamentation with their failure to achieve their dreams.
Meanwhile, “Everyone’s a Little Bit Racist” marks a musical debate about racism and everyone’s involvement with it, “The Internet Is for Porn” tangles with the good and bad aspects of the cultural revolution brought by the Internet, and “Schadenfreude” explains the idea of happiness at the misfortune of others. All in all, “Avenue Q” captures the audience by musically creating the world of these characters and their similarity to our modern reality, complete with doubts, concerns, annoyances, and questions about the topical issues of the day.
Overall, UCI Drama’s production of “Avenue Q” is a hilariously entertaining musical that stresses its characters’ troubles as similar to our own and the country at large, asserting that adulthood isn’t as squeaky clean as childhood imagined it. Running from June 3 to June 10 at the Claire Trevor Theatre, “Avenue Q” makes its audience laugh during a debate over how we deal with these issues and the realities of the world, and ultimately, as Director Hill states, foster a message about “how we all need to live with each other, get along with each other and support each other.”