In what was seen at the time as quite the upset, Avenue Q took home the Tony Award for best musical in 2004, beating out the Wicked machine and the critically acclaimed Caroline, or Change. The 2007 documentary ShowBusiness: The Road to Broadway lays out the behind-the-scenes stories of that season, culminating in Avenue Q winning not just the top prize but also Tonys for Jeff Whitty’s book and Robert Lopez and Jeff Marx’s score. (Lopez has since gone on to achieve the coveted status of being an “EGOT”—Emmy, Grammy, Oscar, and Tony—winner.)
But 20 years and many regional productions later and Avenue Q feels almost quaint in its Sesame Street: After Dark aesthetic. Muppet-like puppets (and some non-puppeteer actors) take us through the story of Princeton, who arrives at the titular street with a newly minted and wholly useless BA in English. When the job he’s lined up falls apart before he even gets a chance to start, he and his neighbors, who are feeling similarly thwarted in their dreams of big-city success and romance, sing the still-catchy, ever-relevant “It Sucks to Be Me.” (Way better than the theme to Friends, though that might be a low bar to clear.)
Through 4/2: Wed 1 PM, Thu 7:30 PM, Fri 8 PM, Sat 2 and 8 PM, Sun 2 PM; no show Thu 3/16; North Shore Center for the Performing Arts, 9501 Skokie Blvd., Skokie, 847-673-6300, musictheaterworks.com, $39-$106 (half price for 25 and under)
Music Theater Works’s production, directed and choreographed by Christopher Pazdernik and with musical direction by Eugene Dizon, is an endearing and crowd-pleasing affair featuring a solid ensemble with supple voices, aided by cunning design work. Ben Lipinski’s set features a recreation of the front of an outer-borough apartment complex that’s seen better days, with windows that pop open to reveal people/puppets like Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In from the 1960s. (The double entendres here are a bit more obvious than what network censors allowed back then, though.)
Princeton (Jimmy Hogan) and kindergarten teacher’s aide Kate Monster (Brandy Miller) are the central characters here, and their story still resonates. Princeton is a Nice Guy with schmuck tendencies, and Kate, like all the other characters, has self-esteem issues to go with her big dreams. In her case, she wants to open a school for young monsters so they won’t be bullied like she was growing up. (It should be noted that Trekkie Monster, the upstairs perv who belts out “The Internet Is for Porn,” seems pretty sure of himself. Andres J. DeLeon, who voices several characters, is particularly good at delivering Trekkie’s gravel-voiced one-liners.)
Things haven’t changed that much for post-grad romance. (If anything, COVID has probably made the launch cycle into adulthood that much more confusing.) And who among us has not fallen prey to our own Bad Idea Bears (DeLeon and Melissa Crabtree, who also excels at voicing multiple puppets), who tell us that buying the case of beer instead of the six-pack is actually a fiscally sound decision? Sure, we all have a sense of purpose, but even early success can curdle into disappointment. Just ask building supervisor Gary Coleman (Whitney Dottery). Yes, THAT Gary Coleman. (It should be noted the show was written before the former child star died in 2010, and that the creators reportedly reached out to him to play the part originally.)
The most cringeworthy element in the show remains the problematic, cartoonish “Asian” accent required of Christmas Eve (Mai Hartwich), the Japanese wife of would-be comic Brian (Thomas E. Squires). I’d argue the character would work just as well (and really, even better) without the blatant transposition of “Ls” and “Rs.” After all, the humor in her story comes from the fact that Christmas Eve is the tough-love grown-up in the house most of the time. She even tells hard-luck Nicky (DeLeon) that he needs to find another place to live when his totally-not-gay roommate Rod (Adam Ross Brody) kicks him out from fear of his own feelings. (This Odd Couple subplot has its own happy ending, fear not—though not the one you might expect.)
Is Christmas Eve harsh from time to time? Undoubtedly, but nobody else in the building steps up to give Nicky a place to sleep either. But eventually, community spirit does take hold, and everyone gets just enough to make them able to face the next steps. Unlike Sesame Street, Avenue Q remains a place where the road to adulthood is rocky, and the best way to enjoy the ride is to realize that a sense of purpose won’t always be your best GPS. Better find yourself some ride-or-dies.