We are all Gary Coleman. That child actor, who attained high pop-culture status when he played Arnold on Diff'rent Strokes more than 30 years ago, never quite made a successful transition to adulthood. And his inability to leave childhood behind was further intensified by his height, which stopped at 4-foot-8 due to a medical condition.
Regardless of our height, we are all Gary Coleman when it comes to figuring out how to be an adult. It all seemed so much simpler back when we were singing along to "Can You Tell Me How to Get to Sesame Street?" We thought it would be a lot easier when we grew up, but eventually we saw how wrong we were.
And that is the genius behind Avenue Q, the puppet-powered musical now generating big laughs at Blank Canvas Theatre. By poking fun at the general vibe and a couple specific characters from Sesame Street, the catchy music and clever lyrics by Jeff Marx and Robert Lopez — not to mention the book by the equally witty Jeff Whitty — make this show a thoroughly enjoyable modern classic.
And the cast at BCT under the ever-imaginative direction of Patrick Ciamacco delivers the goods. Just like the PBS show that inspired AQ, there are human characters that interact with the puppets, which are handled out in the open by actors who mirror the emotions of the characters on the ends of their arms.
If Sesame Street is "Avenue A," with all its happiness and self-actualizing monsters (lookin' at you, Cookie), Avenue Q is many blocks away, alphabetically and otherwise. This is a totally different 'hood, where young adults are depressed, older adults are nasty, and a monster named Trekkie (Brett DiCello), who lives above the garbage can, is addicted to porn.
When it comes to capturing the troubled zeitgeist facing those fresh out of college in the early 2000s, it doesn't get much better than the third song, "It Sucks to Be Me." Plagued with unemployment, under-employment and romantic dead-ends, these people are really depressed. But as the song notes, nobody is worse off than Gary Coleman (Neda Spears) who is working as the local super after his parents stole all his money from the TV series.
(Let's pause for an aside: You call that depressed? Just think how they'd feel now, 15 years after these lyrics were written, with a killer clown in the White House, horrific fires and floods destroying entire towns, and an international "ally" hacking a U.S. journalist to pieces in a consulate. There's not enough puppet tequila in the world to drown that downer. Welcome to Avenue Z.)
Anyhow, the challenges faced by the characters in this play are much more personal. In addition to Coleman, the other two human characters are wannabe comedian Brian (Luke Scattergood) and his fiancee Christmas Eve (Anna Sylvester), a young Asian woman who is a social worker/therapist with no clients.
After that, it's puppets all the way down, including lovable loser Nicky (Trey Gilpin) who shares living space with the fiercely closeted Rod (Scott Esposito), in an ambiguously Platonic relationship. Newcomer Princeton (Shane Patrick O'Neill) arrives looking for a flat and is soon attracted to Kate Monster (Leah Smith) a kindergarten assistant who dreams of opening a school for monsters.
But their love match is challenged by the appearance of the subtly named and amply endowed Lucy the Slut, and two animals that embody the dark side, called the Bad Idea Bears (David Turner and Becca Ciamacco, who are much funnier than their namesake Bad News Bears). Also, Kate is tormented by her snarky teaching mentor Mrs. T. (Kate Michalski), whose full last name always gets one of the biggest laughs.
The production stays on its toes, thanks to some frequently non-PC projections on two screens. For instance, the shape of Lucy's electronic EKG, after she suffers a horrendous encounter with a penny, traces her heartbeat by graphing her bustline. Director Ciamacco keeps the chuckles rolling throughout the two acts with some bad puns, one of which teaches numbers by showing five night stands, then a one-night stand, accompanied by a reasonably graphic cartoon.
The voices are all serviceable, with some — particularly those of Smith, Esposito and O'Neill — shining even as they croon using their pinched, nasally character voices. Their efforts are aided by the accompaniment of a tight little band conducted by Matt Dolan.
And yes, whether you want it or not, there is some sweaty puppet-on-puppet sex involving unique positions and hyper-energetic acrobatics that can only be achieved when someone 10 times taller than you has their wiggling hand up your butt.
This is the perfect show for BCT, since the intimate surroundings allow the audience to engage with the actor/puppeteers and their puppets, designed and constructed for this production by director Ciamacco, Noah Hrbek and Dave Haaz-Baroque.
The only thing the script gets wrong is stated in the final song "For Now," which posits that all our troubles are temporary. Well, if that was true in the past it appears not to be the case now, given the world's impending climate catastrophes. So as much fun as Avenue Q is, it seems about time for an Avenue Z musical to be created. If we're on the brink of the apocalypse, we might as well exit laughing.