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Avenue Q...and Wicked

by Jim Miller

Avenue Q cast album - Buy it or hear sound clips

Over the years, there have been several pairs of Tony award nominated musicals over which the merits of the two shows are long debated by the shows' advocates. People still argue about Two Gentlemen of Veronsa's Tony victory over Follies back in 1971, or The Lion King's more recent win over Ragtime. Once again this year, there were Wicked fans who felt robbed when Avenue Q was a surprise Tony winner.

I love Wicked, and I, personally, think it was the Best Musical as well as the Best Score for 2004. But, that should take nothing away from the considerable accomplishments and charms of Avenue Q, a refreshing and delightful musical that I have seen three times. This is a musical that is great fun and, in many ways, the least flawed musical from last season.

By now, most people know the premise of Avenue Q; it's mix of people and puppets results in an adult and somewhat raunchy (you may have heard about the "puppet sex") version of Sesame Street that speaks to younger theatergoers but has proven to be just as popular to baby boomers and even some of their parents. Its stories of a recent college graduate in search of his "purpose," a young woman seeking romance, and a closeted gay Republican investment banker (all puppets), among other themes, all are contemporary and relevant. And, they are presented in such a clever and funny way that you can't help but enjoy the entire evening.

The score has some catchy tunes and some hilarious lyrics, as indicated in song titles like "It Sucks to be Me" and "Everyone's a Little Bit Racist," among others. While I don't think the score is as rich or complex as Stephen Schwartz's score for Wicked, it is, nonetheless, catchy and winning. The songs, along with just about everything else in the show, are done in the style of Sesame Street, adding to the cleverness of the musical. And, the cast is wonderful, with the Tony nominated John Tartaglia making a particularly winning debut. As you probably know, many of the cast members operate and speak for the puppets, but they are on stage and very visible in the process. Tartaglia's facial expressions as he speaks for puppets Princeton, the recent college grad, and Rod, the gay investment banker, are priceless, and he commands attention whenever he is on stage. Stephanie D'Abruzzo, another deserving Tony nominee, is also terrific as Kate Monster and Lucy T. Slut. And, Ann Harada should have gotten a nomination as Christmas Eve, one of the "human" (meaning she doesn't operate a puppet) characters who was just great in her role. All the performers are first rate, and those who do operate the puppets are amazing - they're fun to watch on their own, but they also bring real life and personality to the various puppets.

When I saw Avenue Q for the third time, I had gotten to know the lyrics from my two previous viewings and from listening to the CD, and some of the jokes do lose a little of their freshness. But, what stood out in the show's third viewing is its genuine warmth and sweetness. That is particularly evident in the show's best song, "It's A Fine, Fine Line," which closes the first act. While, for me, Avenue Q isn't quite as exciting or exhilarating as, say Hairspray, or as emotionally and visually satisfying as Wicked, it remains an exceptionally clever and well done show in which everything basically works. I haven't met anyone yet who hasn't really liked this show. Some prefer it to Wicked, others think Wicked is the better musical. Fortunately for all of us, both shows are sellout hits. We can debate which should have gotten the Tony, but we can be thankful that last season gave us two thoroughly entertaining and successful musicals.

Read about Stephen Oremus, Wicked's Music Director who was also AVENUE Q's Orchestrator/Music Director/Arranger