Avenue Q is, in one way or another, the street where we all live. That’s the premise of the 2004 Tony Award-winning Broadway musical inspired by “Sesame Street.” True, we didn’t all graduate from college with a bachelor’s degree in English literature, move to a New York City apartment building where Gary Coleman is the superintendent, and get downsized out of our jobs before we could even start work — which is what happens to young Princeton at the outset of “Avenue Q.” But we can all relate to a story about hard economic times and difficult personal relationships. And in the Lyric Stage Company production, it’s hard to say who’s cuter and more lovable, the puppets or the humans.
The unusual thing about “Avenue Q” is its mixed cast: 10 puppets (upper body only, no legs or feet) and three humans. Princeton, a puppet, has just arrived at 691 Avenue Q, where he decides, after losing his job, that “It Sucks to Be Me.” He’s not alone. Schoolteacher Kate Monster hates being assistant to Mrs. T; she’s hoping to start her own school for monster children, Kate’s Monsterssori. Nicky suspects his roommate, Republican investment banker Rod, is gay, and he’s OK with that; Rod replies to this assurance with an unconvincing tale of “My Girlfriend, Who Lives in Canada.”
Brian (Harry McEnerny V), a human who lives at 687 Avenue Q, was hoping to be a nightclub comic but can’t even hold on to a day job; his Japanese fiancee, Christmas Eve (Jenna Lea Scott), is a therapist with two master’s degrees and no paying clients. As for the third human (Davron S. Monroe), well, you can imagine how the former child star of “Diff’rent Strokes” feels about being an apartment super. It doesn’t help that everyone is listening to advice from the two Bad Idea Bears. The only satisfied character, Trekkie Monster, is addicted to Internet porn.
In the course of the musical, Princeton and Kate have a date that leads to hot sex (graphic, too — this show is not for kids), but then he has commitment issues and takes up with Lucy the Slut. Rod kicks Nicky out for telling people Rod is gay, Nicky winds up on the street, and he and Princeton and Kate sing “I Wish I Could Go Back to College.” Eventually everyone learns to give rather than get. Nicky finds Rod a boyfriend, Ricky, who looks just like Nicky, and a collection is taken up (audience encouraged to contribute) to fund Kate’s school.
The Lyric set, by Kathryn Kawecki, is a cozy combination of red-brick and brownstone facades, with Laura Ashley-like flowered curtains at the windows and the local bodega sporting ads for 6 Pack Jack Golden Ale and Fire Stix cigarettes. A TV screen atop the store displays “Sesame Street”-like explanations of words ranging from “purpose” to “schadenfreude.”
It’s hard to believe the Lyric’s four puppet handlers — John Ambrosino, Elise Arsenault, Erica Spyres, and Phil Tayler — aren’t puppet professionals; they render their charges as complex and individual as the human actors. Kate Monster is particularly winsome, and Spyres gives her a bright, heroic singing voice. McInerny is an affable, laid-back Brian and Scott a smart, perky Christmas Eve in pink kimono and pink and green sneakers; the “surprise party” she throws Brian turns out to be their Jewish-Japanese wedding, complete with chuppah, Japanese lanterns, and puppets wearing yarmulkes. And Monroe is a hip, upbeat Gary Coleman.
Growing up is a dark business in “Avenue Q,” and director Spiro Veloudos acknowledges that, but for the most part this wonderful production walks the sunny side of the street.Jeffrey Gantz can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.