Audiences who took their seats Friday night at the local premiere of “Avenue Q” could hear David Byrne yelping his way through “Up,” from Talking Heads’ 1977 debut album.
I needed a minute, but I got the joke: “Avenue Q” is a musical about puppets trying to get their lives in order in New York. As hard as the actors who manipulate them work – and they give their all in Theatre Charlotte’s presentation – the stars are made of cloth and wood. The people next to them must remain … talking heads.
The company takes that kind of care with the whole show, from the limp puppet-sized clothes hanging on a line at the edge of Dee Blackburn’s set to the seamless way in which humans morph in and out of multiple characters. (The unobtrusive passing of puppets from one hand to another always escapes notice.)
The results remain as profane and semi-profound as they did when I saw the first and second Broadway touring companies. Director Billy Ensley has pushed the audience a little farther than usual by letting a male actor (Matt Kenyon) speak for the trampy Lucy the Slut. (What cross-gender casting says about her liaison with the hero, I dare not think.)
If you’ve done more research than the couple who left during Act 1, hissing to the sound technician that the show was disgusting, you know its creators had potty mouths and warm hearts. (Robert Lopez, who wrote the songs with Jeff Marx, went on to “Book of Mormon.” Playwright Jeff Whitty later wrote the libretto of “Bring It On: The Musical.”)
The songs “Everyone’s a Little Bit Racist,” done like an instructional anthem from “Sesame Street,” and “The Internet is for Porn” live up (and down) to their titles. “Schadenfreude,” the German term for taking pleasure in the unhappiness of others, gets sung by landlord Gary Coleman – yes, that Gary Coleman (Veda Covington) – to a homeless guy he doesn’t intend to help.
At the same time, we empathize with Princeton (Andy Faulkenberry) in his first unemployed days in the big city, after collecting a none-too-valuable B.A. in English. We root for Kate Monster (K.C. Roberge), as she dreams of opening a school where her furry kind won’t face discrimination.
When she and Princeton hook up for interspecies intercourse, depicted with the same brash frankness as everything else, you have to laugh (unless you’re going to leave).
Roberge has a plaintive quality that goes well with Faulkenberry’s naïve cheerfulness. (He changes voices to depict Rod, a closeted gay investment banker with a crush on his clueless roommate. Their innocent bedroom sequence yields the play’s most poignant moment.)
The whole cast sells their characters with zest but without going over the top. Sometimes we laugh with them, sometimes we laugh at them and sometimes we do both at once: Japanese tenant Christmas Eve (Vivian Tong), sings “The More You Ruv Someone” in a way that reinforces yet teases our stereotypes about Asian-American women.
The nearly sold-out house took to the show with a fervor I haven’t seen there since “Rent” in May 2011. (Ensley directed that, too.) Theatre Charlotte likes to end its season with a bang, either metaphorically or literally (as in “Avenue Q”), and younger audiences turn out. I’ll be curious to see the reaction to “Hair” when it caps the 86th season next spring.