On ‘Avenue Q,’ kids just wanna have fun

A case of fresh and lively delayed adolescence, songs and puppets included

Does it suck to be you? On “Avenue Q.” Photo: David Kinder

When “Avenue Q” shot out of nowhere in the final stretch and nosed out the heavily favored “Wicked” to win the 2004 Tony Award for best musical, it seemed like a neat little reverse run had just pulled off: a kids’ show in the guise of a big, sleek Broadway grownup play had just been aced out by a scrappy little grownup show in the guise of a children’s play.

In a way, that seemed right. The “Wizard of Oz”-inspired “Wicked” had a lot of bells and whistles, plus some booming musical numbers that might’ve done Ethel Merman proud. But compared to the brashly foul-mouthed “Avenue Q” its language was tame, and as far as “adult” content goes, it had nothing to touch the Q’s feverish, sweaty, sheet-mussing and very funny fever of puppet sex.

Still, I walked out of Triangle Productions’ rowdy and appealing new version of “Avenue Q” the other night thinking that the musical’s ideal audience was high school and college kids. Imagine “Avenue Q” on the marquees of high-school theater departments across the land!

OK, I know that’s never gonna happen. Mother Outrage and Principal Cover-My-Pants would never allow it, for yea, someone somewhere would certainly be offended and kick up a stink. But a fellow can dream, can’t he?

James Sharinghausen, Tyler Andrew-Jones. Photo: David Kinder

I have no idea whether either of these shows will still be getting performed a half-century or more from now, like Rodgers & Hammerstein’s “South Pacific,” which debuted in 1949 and is in the midst of its latest of many, many local revivals, this time at Lakewood Theatre. I doubt it. “South Pacific” has a similar streak of social conscience but a deeper story and much better music than either “Wicked” or “Q,” which strike me as pretty much plays for our times.

But after all, we’re smack in the middle of our times, and “Avenue Q” continues to speak engagingly to them – especially to the reality of delayed adolescence that is such an everyday reality for teen-agers and men and women in their 20s. In a way the show’s the comedy flip side of “Rent,” a musical about a group of young people ill-prepared for an adult world that sets about casually devouring them.

There are daunting economic reasons for this, probably more important than the emotional ones, and if anything they’re more a part of life today than they were in 2004, when jobs and paychecks seemed to be perking along pretty nicely. The bubble hadn’t yet burst, and it wasn’t yet so clear that today’s global economy thrives, to the extent that it thrives, partly by locking young people into low-paying, dead-end jobs or simply out of the job market altogether, and on the other end of the age scale, by rooting out as much as possible the relatively high paychecks of workers aged 50 and above. (It then complains about the high cost of “entitlements” to the people it’s systematically kicked to the sidewalk, but I can’t think of any current musicals that address that tawdry little irony: maybe, at least a little bit, “Sweeney Todd” and the Dennis Potter/Steve Martin movie musical “Pennies from Heaven.”)

So when Kate Monster, Nicky and Princeton sing the mock-doleful “I Wish I Could Go Back to College” in “Avenue Q,” it’s a no-brainer: compared to surviving in the economic and social desert of the real world, college seems like a snap. And the musical’s main conceit of adopting the style and loosely disguised characters from the kids’ TV icon “Sesame Street” seems at least as much a yearning for the comforts of childhood as it is a satirical if affectionate jab at pop culture. As much as the let’s-pretend puppet characters provide the comic kick in the show, the point of the play is to set aside the kids’ stuff and become real girls and boys – or, finally, men and women.

But all of that stuff’s subterranean. What makes “Avenue Q” click is that it’s fun, and Triangle’s director, Donald Horn, has pulled together a lot of good and mostly young talent to produce a lightly ramshackle but freshly appealing and quick-paced show. It could stand a little sharper shaping here and there, but it gets the feel of the thing just about right: the show has heart, and “Avenue Q”‘s heart, despite all the Broadway gloss, is closer to basement theater.

The cast ranges from Jonathan Quesenberry as the old guy on the Ave (Brian, long of tooth at the horrifying old age of 30) to the bright young talent Meghan McCandless, as Kate Monster, who made a Drammy-winning splash last season in her Portland debut in Artists Rep’s “Next to Normal” and who is leaving mid-run to start her first year in college. Others arrive with experience on such musical-rich stages as Broadway Rose (among others, Norman Wilson, compelling as Rod, the gay guy who’s afraid to come out of the closet), Lakewood Theatre, and Oregon Children’s Theatre (Tyler Andrew-Jones, who plays the childhood-celebrity landlord Gary Coleman, starred in OCT’s recent hit production of Jacqueline Woodson’s “Locomotion”). It feels a bit like Rising Stars of 2012, a showcase for fresh young talent.

Triangle’s cozy space in The Sanctuary on Northeast Sandy Boulevard is a good home for what’s essentially an intimate little show – certainly far better than the 3,000-seat Keller Auditorium, where the Broadway touring production played in 2008. The Sanctuary isn’t ideal in terms of sound mix – things bounce around the room a bit – but it isn’t a big distraction, and the closeness of audience and actors seems just right for a show that thrives on friendly confines.

Technical credits are solid, too. Musical director Darcy White does a fine job with the singers and the six-piece band; Tears of Joy’s Nancy Aldrich is puppet master, and Darrin J. Puffall designed the little floppy critters.

The Big Q? “What Do You Do with a B.A. in English?” Brew coffee drinks, if you’re lucky, as your economic kick-start into the rude awakenings of grown-up life. In the meantime, you could hang out a while on Avenue Q. There are far, far worse places to be.

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