When Sesame Workshop announced a couple of months ago that the next five seasons of Sesame Street would premiere on HBO nine months before they hit the public airwaves, surprisingly few of the ensuing thinkpieces cited Avenue Q. Maybe that’s because it’s been gone for a while. The bawdy adult parody of the long-running children’s TV show premiered off-Broadway the same month the U.S. invaded Iraq. Its Broadway run lasted six years.
What’s most surprising about Constellation Theatre’s sublime (and at $20 to $45, relatively bargain-priced) revival is its reminder that as blue as Q is, it’s still a hell of a lot less cynical than the depressing new iteration of The Muppets that debuted on ABC last month. Donald Trump’s name replaces George W. Bush’s as a punchline in this version, and long-ago sitcom star Gary Coleman—who did not perform in Avenue Q, but was and is a character in it—is now dead.
But for the most part, the passing of a dozen years hasn’t made the material any less hilarious or weirdly heartwarming. “The Internet Is for Porn” is still a great comedy song. As is “Everyone’s a Little Bit Racist.” And “My Girlfriend, Who Lives in Canada.” And “Schadenfreude.”
The only thing that’s slightly disappointing about Constellation founder Allison Arkell Stockman’s boisterous, crisply executed production is that despite her company’s history of bold design work, it hasn’t reinterpreted the puppets. They’re the same intentionally Muppet-like creatures seen in the Broadway run. Constellation rented the puppets from Music Theatre International, a theatrical licensing agency. It would be interesting to see how this show would play if its furry stars didn’t so closely resemble their Muppet Show forebears, wocka wocka.
As in the Broadway version, the actors/puppeteers wear black but don’t conceal themselves, and their own expressions seem to project emotion onto the unblinking craft-store visages of the creatures on their hands. Katy Carkuff, a fixture of Constellation shows, turns out to be a more-than-able singer and puppeteer in the role of the idealistic Kate Monster, and Matt Dewberry matches her exuberance as Princeton, Kate’s on-again, off-again beau, who’s seeking his capital-P Purpose in life.
The other actors are largely new to the company. No one is deficient, but Vaughn Ryan Midder—who performs as both Rod, the show’s closeted, Republican analog to Old Buddy Bert, and Trekkie Monster, who shares Cookie Monster’s lack of self-control but who bows to the false god of onanism rather than refined sugar—is a standout, giving each of his two characters a distinct and expressive verbal rhythm.
Squeezed into the confines of Constellation’s usual venue, the Source Theatre, and powered by a six-piece band under the direction of Jake Null, this Broadway-sized musical only benefits from the forced intimacy. After more than a decade, Avenue Q a still a fecund collision of liberal optimism and life-during-wartime gloom; of youth and slightly faded youth; of repression and freak-flag-flying; of flesh (well, felt) and fur. Turns out, being 22 and unemployed and broke is still scary.
1835 14th St. NW. $20–$45. (202) 204-7741. constellationtheatre.org.