In Many Ways, It's Still Fresh / 'Ave. Q' moves uptown but stays street smart

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Those lipless mouths. Those yarn-button noses. Those

iconically familiar - but not identical enough for legal action - puppet-people

of "Avenue Q" have jumped and/or been pushed to big-time Broadway from their

comfy, sold-out, Off-Broadway run at the Vineyard Theatre.

The rude yet benign, wicked yet sweet musical, which opened last night at

the Golden Theatre, is virtually the same clean little raunchy puppet show that

already captured the downtown hearts of 20-somethings, slackers, would-be

slackers and the parents who love them. To our nervous system, the extended

two-hour sketch would be sharper if trimmed to a tight 90 minutes without an

intermission.

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But the affection engendered for this "Sesame Street" homage and parody

since last spring demands, clearly, that director Jason Moore not change a hair

on Kate Monster's furry face. Done. Anna Louizos' street of friendly old

tenements has been stretched a bit to fill the larger stage, but the pop-open

walls, back- up singing pizza boxes and Rick Lyon's amiably invisible

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puppeteers lose none of their intimacy in the bigger house.

On one level, "Avenue Q" serves as a sort of entry-level musical for

overeducated, underemployed college graduates with no prospects but plenty of

idealism about making a difference in the world. More universally, at one time

or another, most kids of any vintage want to know the way to Sesame Street.

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Little do they imagine how many will instead find themselves a little farther

east from Easy Street - say, into the cheap-rent outer borough that offers

Avenue Q.

Newcomers Robert Lopez and Jeff Marx have written jaunty music and

unflinching lyrics that know their way around the nuance of sunny pop melodies,

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juxtaposing the lilting jingles with such self-loathing but happy anthems as

"It --- to Be Me" and the ever-popular "You Can Be As Loud As the Hell You Want

(When You're Makin' Love)."

Yes, lonely, ambitious Kate - adorably embodied by Stephanie D'Abruzzo as

if the puppet were mind-melded up to her elbow - has hot sex with Princeton -

portrayed by the engaging John Tartaglia with a preppy puppet on his forearm.

And Nicky, the closeted-gay accountant - imbued with psychological body

language by puppetmaster Lyon - even has an erotic dream ballet about his

roommate [CORRECTION: The closeted gay accountant puppet in the Broadway

musical "Avenue Q" is named Rod. His puppeteer is John Tartaglia. The puppet

and puppeteer were misidentified in the "Avenue Q" review on Aug. 1. pg. A02

ALL 08/13/03].

Jeff Whitty's book follows the journey of Princeton, the newest arrival on

Avenue Q, who wanders onto the only street he can afford in a graduation gown

and sings the eternal question, "What do you do with a BA in English?" He joins

other residents - human and puppet - most with job hunting on the brain and a

smile in their irreverent hearts. Like others who came before him, Princeton is

looking for a purpose. So animated images on hanging TV screens ask, "What's a

Purpose?" Even more useful on the screens are the post-coital, gender-specific

phonics lesson, the mathematical graphic explaining one- night stand and the

lesson on Schadenfreude - pleasure in someone else's pain.

The best example of Schadenfreude is, according to this show, the existence

of Gary Coleman. The poor guy's unfortunate career arc has been made into an

official running gag. In "Avenue Q," he's the building super and played by a

woman, Natalie Venetia Belcon, who bats her eyes and grins in caricature homage

to yet another stereotype. Ann Harada plays Christmas Eve - this is a

neighborhood where names need not be explained - a Japanese social worker whose

pronunciation of "L's" and "R's" is another ongoing punchline.

These and other nonchalant taboos lead to one of the best songs,

"Everyone's a Little Bit Racist," sung by all the real people and

people-puppets and monster-puppets, who, we learn, are the object of

considerable prejudice. Trekkie Monster doesn't often come out of his flat, but

will lead most of the group in the catchy "The Internet Is for Porn."

Sure, there is an uplifting message about ethnic and sexual diversity,

living for the moment and having interspecies tolerance for monsters. But, best

of all, there are two snuggly Bad-Idea Bears, who, with their wide eyes and

passive pleasantry, appear from nowhere to encourage everyone who should know

better to forget their "higher purposes" and have another Long Island Ice Tea.

The bears deserve a sequel.

BROADWAY REVIEW

AVENUE Q. Music and lyrics by Robert Lopez and Jeff Marx, book by Jeff

Whitty, directed by Jason Moore. Puppets by Rick Lyon, with sets by Anna

Louizos, costumes by Mirena Rada, lights by Frances Aronson, animation by

Lopez, music direction by Gary Adler, choreography by Ken Roberson. Golden

Theatre, 45th Street west of Broadway. Seen at Saturday afternoon's preview.

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