Avenue Q brings puppetry of the people to Denver

Most of the characters in Avenue Q are college graduates in that in-between stage — bright and literate, finished with school but not ready for the daily grind of making a living — and they've congregated on New York's grungy Avenue Q. Idealistic Kate is a kindergarten teacher and also a Sesame Street-style monster: She's experienced some discrimination from non-monsters in her life. Princeton's the bright-eyed new arrival, and Rod the uptight banker who won't admit that he's gay but who's in love with his slacker roommate, Nicky. The neighborhood is presided over by longtime resident Christmas Eve — a parody of musical-comedy Japanese stereotypes who continually substitutes the "r" sound for the "l" — and her partner, Brian. Also janitor-superintendent Gary Coleman. Yes, that Gary Coleman, though here he's played by a woman. The cast is rounded out by a Mae West siren called Lucy, and Trekkie Monster, a hoarse-voiced, porn-loving Cookie Monster look-alike. Several of these folk are played by puppets, and half the pleasure of the production — which yields pleasure by the boatload — comes from the synergy between the human actors and their furry alter egos. Sometimes human and puppet faces mirror each other with amazing exactness; you see a human hand cupped into the precise shape of a monster paw; a set of swinging human hips accentuates puppet Lucy's seductive invitations.

The plot's nothing special. We want Rod to come out, Kate to realize her goals, Princeton to figure out what his goals are, and both he and Kate to admit that they love each other. We hope Nicky won't be homeless too long, and we're amused by Christmas Eve's predicament as a therapist who's never had a client — until she meets Princeton. If there's a theme, it has to do with the characters' aimlessness, and the need almost everyone discovers to lower youthful expectations. The real Gary Coleman, whose bright kid stardom spluttered out in a welter of financial problems and family gossip, might almost be these characters' patron saint.

The Sesame Street concept is cleverly executed, as chirpy, hummable melodies carry cynical or scatalogical lyrics and the word "Schadenfreude" is spelled and sung out Sesame Street-style. It's affectionate parody, however: Puppet designer Rick Lyon worked with Jim Henson. In one hilarious number, the Kate and Princeton muppets engage in graphic sex while Coleman sings, "You can be as loud as the hell you want when you're making love" — a point that Christmas Eve soon proves at the top of her voice while all the others caper and sing themselves into an orgasmic frenzy. There's a wonderfully misty dream sequence in which Rod almost realizes his feelings for Nicky, and an amazing Ethel Merman/Judy Garland-style belt from Christmas Eve — except that instead of lamenting the One That Got Away, she's explaining that "The More You Ruv Someone, the More You Want to Kir Them."

All of the characters are charming, and the actors playing them couldn't be more appealing. Anika Larsen's Kate is sweet but never cloying, and Seth Rettberg, doing double duty as Princeton and Rod, is light-footed, funny and huggable. David Benoit, too, is a cuddly, humorous scene-stealer. Danielle K. Thomas makes a hilarious Gary Coleman, with a good ear for mimicry and a fine voice, and Angela Ai's a knockout with great comic timing and a range that encompasses both high and low ends of the scale richly and without effort. Silently manipulating her puppets, Maggie Lakis still manages to be profoundly expressive, and Cullen R. Titmas stood in ably as Brian on the night I saw the show.

Avenue Q is lighthearted and amusing — cynical without being shallow, its irony never heavy and its warm-heartedness genuine and unaffected. I found myself smiling pretty much the whole way through, except for those times when I was convulsed in laughter.

KEEP WESTWORD FREE... Since we started Westword, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Denver, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Juliet Wittman is an investigative reporter and critic with a passion for theater, literature, social justice and food. She has reviewed theater for Westword for over a decade; for many years, she also reviewed memoirs for the Washington Post. She has won several journalism awards and published essays and short stories in literary magazines. Her novel, Stocker's Kitchen, can be obtained at select local bookstores and on Amazon.
Contact: Juliet Wittman