Avenue Q , the puppet musical at the Golden Theatre on Broadway, has been described as savvy and sassy, post-modern Sondheimean, a breakthrough musical, and everything else an oversized hand puppet could desire. There are three puppet-free performers in the show; they could be life-size cartoons. But for the sake of offending any adult who still adores cute, spongy puppets with big happy mouths, let’s imagine there aren’t any puppets in the show at all. How big a breakthrough musical comedy would Avenue Q be?
To summarize its cobbled-together plot: An aimless college grad named Princeton, who can’t hold a job and jerks off a lot, is in search of a purpose in life. He might strike you as a bit dim. He goes to live on friendly Avenue Q in New York City, where he meets a bunch of other likable characters such as Brian, an overweight 32-year-old failed stand-up comic who’s very dim, and his future bride, a Japanese immigrant and failed therapist who hasn’t yet mastered the English language. Known as Christmas Eve, she causes much hilarity when she comes out with the dialect equivalent of “Velly solly!”
Kate, a kindergarten teacher, has dreams of opening her own school for misfits. Kate’s looking for love:
I like romantic things like music and art
And as you know I have a gigantic heart
Don’t I have a boyfriend?
It sucks to be me.
There’s also a wild man who watches Internet porn all day and night. There’s Nicky and Rod, who share a room until they have a falling out. Nicky’s straight and also aimless; Rod’s a Republican investment banker who’s in the closet and likes Broadway musicals, which is how we know . There’s the black super, who’s a running gag on the former child star Gary Coleman. They’re all a little bit racist, but in a good-natured way. And there’s slutty Lucy, a vamp who’s a mix of Miss Piggy and Mae West, of all old-fashioned people. Lucy’s a second-rate nightclub singer: “I can make you feel / Special / When it sucks to be you.”
To be honest, there’s an awful lot of sucking in the show. “Smack it and lick it and rub it and suck it!” goes the exuberant chorus when the drunk Princeton and Kate get it on. But skanky Lucy is always lurking. “Oh, Princeton,” Lucy tempts him. “You look so handsome I could eat you alive.” Anyway, Princeton leaves Kate in the lurch to continue looking for his purpose; Rod fantasizes about making love to Nicky and finally comes screaming out of the closet; everyone misses life at college; and all ends happily ever after when the reclusive porn nut named Trekkie gives $10 million to Kate so she can open her very own kindergarten.
A breakthrough musical? Avenue Q is at best a sophomoric romp in the questionably “ironic” tradition of Urinetown . It’s a send-up of Sesame Street that’s presumably intended for students and adults who still care enough about Sesame Street to think it worth sending up. Or it’s for regressive, childish adults who’ll forgive a puppet anything.
In its cuddly essence, it’s a TV puppet show onstage that’s another exercise in adult infantilization. “What if a cozy, familiar kids’ television show had to grow up? Not just the characters, but the subject matter, the songs, the attitude?” Rick Lyon, the show’s puppet designer, asked recently. The ironic “attitude” is sort of grown-up, but not really. The familiar kids’ show hasn’t matured. In its coarse, reincarnated way, it got sillier than ever. The puppets remain incurably cute, juvenile and unmysteriously “naughty.” The song titles tell us a lot about the show: “Fantasies Come True,” “If You Were Gay,” “I’m Not Wearing Underwear Today,” “You Can Be As Loud As the Hell You Want (When You’re Makin’ Love).”
At the close, I looked over at my disgruntled neighbor-who, to my secret pleasure, turned out to be a puppet hater-and asked: “But do we need cunnilingus performed by puppets?” “Not at these prices,” he replied.
On the other hand, let it be said that lots of people in the audience had a great old time at Avenue Q . I wasn’t one of them, as you can tell.
The best show I’ve seen in a long time was Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band in their last celebratory performance at the Meadowlands recently. The hometown boy was greeted by 50,000 of the faithful as a folk hero, which he surely is. Take the Boss’ entrance into the arena, which couldn’t have been orchestrated better.
It’s about half an hour beyond the scheduled start. The vast, excited crowd has long since begun the rhythmic chant for their hero that sounds weirdly like booing. “BROOOOOOOOOOOOOOCE!” it goes. “BROOOOOOOOOOOCE!” They’re on their feet now-50,000 of them!-cheering and clapping and urging him to come onstage and start the party. Two giant video screens flanking the stage suddenly flicker to life. The sense of anticipation is now at boiling point. And there! Projected by back-stage videocameras, these monumental, mythic figures are suddenly glimpsed walking toward the stage. The crowd’s now going beserk! Here they come! You see them actually passing from this super-reality on the giant screens to the reality of players on a stage. And that’s the most thrilling entrance I’ve seen at the theater.
You might say a rock show isn’t theater. But all shows are theater, and nobody knows this better than the Boss. He’s some performer . He loves to perform. He has so much manic energy, he reminds me, if you please, of the beloved, irrepressible Liverpool comic who performs his shows to around midnight and then asks his audience, “Do you give in?”
The self-proclaimed Minister of Rock ‘n’ Roll takes no prisoners. He has a question for us, too: “Is anybody alive out there?” He screams it out during the raw gospel fervor of “Mary’s Place”: “Is anybody alive out there?”
He knows the answer. The Minister of Rock ‘n’ Roll can’t change anyone’s life, but he can bring it to life. Then again, he’s preaching to the choir. The faithful know every lyric of every song-from the strutting rock chants of “Rosalita (Come Out Tonight)” to the singalong “Waitin’ On a Sunny Day,” from signature anthems like “Born to Run,” to those moving requiems for the fallen, “Empty Sky” and “The Rising.”
Mr. Springsteen is a showman without frills, unabashed, rocking for the joy of it. But he isn’t a ‘Mr.’ He’s ‘Bruce.’ Blue-collar hero or no, he’s one of us. He’s no longer the promised outlaw of the early The Wild, the Innocent & the E Street Shuffle . But where is Sir Mick Jagger today, eh? What was he doing kneeling cravenly before his Queen to receive a knighthood for services to rock? The world’s gone insane, but the Boss hasn’t. The Boss still remains thoroughly, honestly himself. At 53-God help us all-he hasn’t lost a stride. At one high point, he balanced upside-down on the microphone stand, just to show he could do it. It’s even sweet. But the truth is, he performs his heart out for us. Bruce Springsteen and those other rock legends, the E Street Band, gave us a terrific, memorable show. Puppets are O.K., I guess. But you see what I’m saying? Is anybody alive out there?