If Samuel Beckett had taken Prozac and written a “Sesame Street” episode, it might have come out a little like “Avenue Q.” The three-time Tony Award-winning puppet musical serves up existential angst for the Muppets generation in a format as appealing as a shiny new soft drink.
The 2004 Broadway hit by Robert Lopez and Jeff Marx (music and lyrics) and Jeff Whitty (book), made its long-awaited arrival in San Francisco this week. Presented by Best of Broadway, it opened Wednesday at the Orpheum Theatre for a month-long run.
Simply put, the show is irresistible. The premise is funny, the jokes are plentiful, the cast is outstanding, and the staging bubbles along at a relentlessly peppy pace. And then there are the puppets.
Theatrical productions often include puppets in supporting roles; here, they’re the central characters. Princeton, a puppet manned by the superb Robert McClure, is a 30-something college grad with no prospects; in the evening’s first musical number, he sings “What do you do with a BA in English?”
His neighbors — a mix of puppet and human types — have troubles of their own.
Kate Monster (a female puppet operated by Kelli Sawyer) is a prim schoolteacher who longs to start her own school; roommates Nicky (Christian Anderson) and Rod (McClure), who resemble Bert and Ernie, may or may not be gay. Lucy (Sawyer) is a lusty diva a la Miss Piggy; Trekkie Monster (Anderson) is a loveable grouch addicted to Internet porn.
The human characters are Brian (Cole Porter), an unemployed standup comic; his Japanese-American bride, Christmas Eve (Angela Ai); and Gary Coleman (Carla Renata), the has-been child star who has found a new career as the building’s wise-cracking super.
Lopez and Marx conceived “Avenue Q” as a “Sesame Street” parody, and the look of the show brilliantly supports their vision. Rick Lyon’s puppets are flexible, expressive creations. The set (by Anna Louizos) features a brick façade with pop-up doors for interiors and drop-down screens for “instructional” cartoons.
Costumes (Mirena Rada) and lights (Howell Binkley) add a measure of dazzle. Still, the show isn’t for youngsters; themes of racism, homophobia, depression and the all-important quest to find one’s “purpose” in life are the driving forces for these characters. In a hilarious recurring bit, a pair of “Bad Idea Bears” suggest Faustian temptations, urging the characters to drink more, have sex and add suicide to their list of options.
Yet, even in its most off-color moments — including a puppet sex scene played to a strobing rock number — the show feels unrelentingly cheerful. The cast is young and energetic; each is an excellent singer, and each gets a chance to shine. Highlights include Kate’s breakup song, “A Fine Fine Line” and Rod’s racy vaudevillian number “My Girlfriend Who Lives in Canada”; Sawyer belts a torch song as Lucy, and Ai delivers a big, Mermanesque ballad on the torments of marriage.
“Avenue Q” is so tightly directed (by Jason Moore) and choreographed (Ken Roberson), it’s possible to float along on the zesty comedy, catchy tunes and colorful visuals right up to the big finale. The consoling, Zen-like resolution is a throwaway. But a show that can keep an audience laughing for two hours is definitely a keeper.
IF YOU GO
Presented by Best of Broadway
Where: Orpheum Theatre, 1192 Market St., San Francisco
When: 8 p.m. Tuesdays through Saturdays; 2 p.m. Wednesdays, Saturdays and Sundays; closes Sept. 2
Contact: (415) 512-7770 or www.shnsf.com