Most of us under 45 can probably recall a childhood spent in front of the TV with programs like Sesame Street, which showed our young minds a world of endless possibilities. When we grew older, we realized that the world was actually full of frustration, limitation and uncertainty. This disconnect forms the basis for Avenue Q, the smash musical that netted three Tony Awards in 2004, became a national phenomenon and is now playing at the San Jose Stage Company.
Basically an off-color and hilarious Sesame Street for grown-ups, Avenue Q follows the adventures of a recent college grad named Princeton (puppeteered by David Colston Corris), who moves into a grimy urban tenement run by a caricature of the late Gary Coleman (Cheryl B. Scales, one of three nonpuppeteering actors). There, he meets others who share his financial hardship and lack of purpose, including Kate Monster (Halsey Varady), a lowly teacher’s assistant who dreams of opening a school for monsters; Brian (Martin Rojas-Dietrich), an unemployed thirtysomething who wants to be a standup comedian; and Brian’s fiancée, Christmas Eve (Rinabeth Apostol), an unsuccessful therapist.
The colorful cast of personalities also includes roommates Rod and Nicky (David Colston Corris and Robert Brewer), who resemble Bert and Ernie from Sesame Street; Trekkie Monster (Brewer), a big goofy porn addict; and the Bad Idea Bears (Monique Hafen and Robert Brewer), two adorable critters who show up to suggest things like bulk purchases of beer and suicide by hanging.
Puppetry has become big in today’s theater thanks partly to the success of Avenue Q, but the play’s Muppet-inspired creatures still stand out from the crowd. Supplied to San Jose Stage by original cast member Rick Lyons, these apparently simple creations prove amazingly lifelike, and the puppeteers capture many of the classic Muppet mannerisms. That we can accept these things as characters without a second thought attests to the skill of those who operate them as well as the others who interact with them onstage.
As with Sesame Street, there are many songs with an instructive bent, like “Everyone’s a Little Bit Racist,” “The Internet Is for Porn” and “Schadenfreude.” Other songs, like “I Wish I Could Go Back to College” and “What Do You Do With a B.A. in English?” speak directly to the experiences of many young people and seem even more appropriate during the Great Recession than they did when the play premiered on Broadway.
Runs through July 24
The Stage, 490 S. First St., San Jose