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REVIEW: RBTL's "Avenue Q" 

So: awesome. Awesome, awesome, awesome. There is literally nothing bad I can write about Rochester Broadway Theatre League's touring production of "Avenue Q." No sound problems. No weak actors. No crappy sets. Nothing. The play is great, the singing was great, the production was slick - it's a critic's worst nightmare.

"Avenue Q" was the surprise winner for the 2004 Tony Award for Best Musical. In fact, co-writer Robert Lopez writes in his program bio that he's "still reeling" from taking home the Best Score trophy. (It also won for best book, direction, and lead male and female actors, plus a host of Drama Desk awards.) So the show has quite a pedigree, although I suspect it could kind of care less. It's the quintessential Gen X/Y musical, totally post-post-modern, snarky to within an inch of its life, and steeped in 80's nostalgia to boot. And it's also a hell of a lot of fun.

"Avenue Q" is basically a jacked-up version of "Sesame Street." It's a place where humans live side-by-side with puppets and monsters, and nobody blinks an eye. The action begins when puppet Princeton comes to the street to find an apartment. He's a new college grad with an English degree, and thus no real skill set or career plans. He quickly meets the rest of the cast, which includes sweet, lonely Kate Monster; bickering unemployed couple Brian and Christmas Eve; goofy puppet Nicky and his closeted gay Republican roommate, Rod; building superintendent Gary Coleman (yes, that Gary Coleman, although here deliberately played by a woman); and uncouth, porn-loving upstairs neighbor Trekkie Monster.

The cast regularly breaks into song to relay their various 20/30something struggles, including money woes, relationship problems, racism, noise levels during sex, and laughing at the misfortune of others (in the show-stopping "Schadenfreude," my personal anthem since I first heard it years ago). To further the Sesame Street-like feel, throughout the production big-screen TVs descend from the ceiling to deliver colorful life lessons in childlike script, although with an adult twist (the "commitment" and "five nightstands" clips are among the cleverest bits in the show).

The performers are all fantastic, with the standout being Kelli Sawyer as the voices of Kate Monster and the aptly named Lucy the Slut. Sawyer's voice is clear and big and beautiful, and she's a joy to listen to. Lead actor Robert McClure gives just as good in the challenging roles of Princeton and Rod; it's a little terrifying to think that one person switches between such radically different voices in mere seconds, but that's the nature of the show.

It is a little odd, at first, to realize that when the puppets are onstage, you're supposed to focus on the furry characters' actions and not the black-clad humans walking them around, giving them their its voice. But by the second or third song, the weirdness passes, and by the time the vigorous puppet sex scene rolls around, you really can't look at anything besides their flapping, fuzzy bodies.

Seriously, there are no negatives here. I wondered whether intermission would see a mass exodus by some of the more prudish members of the audience (see: vigorous puppet sex scene). But it seemed like almost everybody stuck around and had a great time. Don't miss this one during its limited run.


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