If you make a sharp left from Sesame Street, you might find yourself on “Avenue Q,” an alternate puppet universe where “come-mitment” takes on a whole new meaning. A collaboration of the Long Beach Playhouse (LBPH) and JD Theatricals, “Avenue Q: The Broadway Musical” sings out loud everything you may have thought in private and then some, leaving you laughing and blushing at the same time.
With music and lyrics by Robert Lopez and Jeff Marx, and book by Jeff Whitty, “Avenue Q” centers on Princeton (Zachary Balagot), a new college graduate puppet with “no skills,” eager to find his purpose in the world. Taking up residence on low-rent Avenue Q, with down-and-out former child-actor Gary Coleman (Eileen Goodman) as his landlord, Princeton soon befriends his neighbors—both puppets and human—including single monster Kate (Kelsey Weinstein). Spoiler: the show doesn’t shy away from puppet intimacy.
Like Princeton, many of the relatively young Avenue Q residents struggle to find jobs and love, facing disappointment, poignant self-doubt and heartbreak. Kate’s song “There’s a Fine, Fine Line” at the end of Act 1 captures those feelings, as does the nostalgic “I Wish I Could Go Back to College” and the more hopeful ensemble closing number, “For Now.” How these likeable characters navigate life’s challenges is inspiring—like Sesame Street but with lessons for young (and older) adults.
Along the way, though, “Avenue Q” is hilariously raunchy and decidedly non-PC. The refreshingly honest and catchy song “Everyone’s a Little Bit Racist” is hard to argue with. “The Internet is for Porn”—showcasing the monosyllabic vocal talent of gruff Trekkie Monster (Eric Schiffer)—may be more arguable, though the males (both puppet and human) make a case for it. And the sultry Lucy The Slut (Mia Anderson) struts into Princeton’s life with her own sexy soundtrack.
Though deceptively friendly and fun, two Bad Idea Bears (Cris Cortez and Mabel Schreffler) goad Princeton and Kate into questionable behaviors, such as buying a case of beer when money is tight and drinking excessively in a bar, and even throw a rope to Princeton when he is depressed to encourage his very worst thoughts—which is way funnier than it sounds.
We also have Avenue Q’s version of Sesame Street roommates Ernie and Bert, though here the repressed tie-wearing Rod (Sean McCallon) fantasizes about romance with goofy roommate Nicky (Brandon Gomez). Though it still resonates, their song “If You Were Gay” may feel a little dated since “Avenue Q” debuted in 2003, perhaps underscoring how much has changed over the pasts two decades about coming out.
Similarly, Christmas Eve (Gloria Henderson), an Asian human, singing “The More You Ruv Someone”—its title formalizing her previous mixing up of l and r sounds—may ring hollow to our ears now, especially given the rise in anti-Asian sentiment since the COVID-19 pandemic. But the song is still hysterical given Henderson’s dry delivery and an element of truth: “the more you ruv someone, the more you want to kill them.”
Accompanying the songs is a lively four-person band directed by Stephen Olear, featuring Olear on piano, Jerry Barba on clarinet and sax, Iggi El Kouatli on bass and Jeff Fish on drums. And choreographer Jackie Melbon complements director Kathy Paladino in orchestrating staging and movement, ensuring puppets and humans have ample room on Jim Huffman’s well-designed street set to perform their antics.
Huffman is also executive director of the now “theatre-homeless” JD Theatricals, formerly housed in the Attic Community Theatre of Santa Ana that had to permanently close its doors during the pandemic. This production is infused with acting talent from past Attic productions, as well as LBPH veterans like McCallon and Schiffer.
You really can’t go wrong taking a walk on the wild side through “Avenue Q” with this collaborative production. Each actor is talented and well-cast, bringing verve and feeling to their puppeteering and singing. While the show’s over-the-top humor might seem like it was written by a Bad Ideas Bear, it also comes with a very human message—a perfect post-pandemic tale of how to help each other get along.
“Avenue Q” continues at the Long Beach Playhouse Studio Theatre, 5021 E. Anaheim St., through May 28, with shows Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m. and Sundays at 2 p.m. Tickets are $14 to $24. For tickets and information, call the box office at (562) 494-1014 or visit LBPlayhouse.org. Proof of vaccination and mask-wearing are required.