ORLANDO — There was definitely a “Broadway” crowd at the Mad Cow Theatre on the afternoon I went to see their new production of “Avenue Q.”
More than a few of the patrons told me about how they had seen this very popular show on Broadway, in all its splendor. I stood out, in a sense, because I had never seen the show before. Several people, after I mentioned that fact, gave me an odd look, as if to ask if I had been living on Mars the past few years.
Although I hadn’t seen the musical before, I was aware of its reputation as a kind of naughty adult version of “Sesame Street” — although it’s hardly an X-rated version of that children’s program, as some have claimed. This musical in two acts, written by Robert Lopez and Jeff Marx, is more like shifting the Sesame Street concept outside of childhood and applying it to young adults — particularly twenty-somethings just out of college, now facing the harsh realities of a tough job market, having no money, and wondering if there’s someone out there who will decide you’d be a great person to date. The real world, as they say, is no picnic.
The show opened Off-Broadway in March 2003, then was transferred to Broadway within three months. It went on to win three Tony Awards, including Best Musical, and ranks 23rd on the list of longest running shows in Broadway history.
Among the folks who told me, before the show started, that they had seen it on Broadway, virtually everyone commented during intermission and after it was over that Mad Cow had done a fantastic job of recreating the production on a much smaller stage.
I can’t make that comparison, obviously. But it’s hard not to admit that what Mad Cow delivered is truly first-rate entertainment.
“Avenue Q” is noteworthy, obviously, for its use of puppets as well as human actors, to tell the story of the young people living in a run down apartment complex on Avenue Q, waiting for their big break in life, hoping to find love if they’re not doing as well finding a career.
There’s plenty of rich humor in watching the Sesame Street-style puppets deal with decidedly adult situations — the puppet that everyone knows is gay, even though he insists he’s got a girlfriend in Canada; the puppet who works as a teacher’s aide and is given a great opportunity to lead the class in the teacher’s absence, but who makes the mistake of going out drinking with her prospective beau the night before; the puppet who ends up homeless after he angers his roommate, and finds nobody else will let him crash in their place.
Watching puppets, with their goofy voices, cope with these all too real situations, is as hilarious as it sounds.
But what also works so well for “Avenue Q” is the way it operates as an expert coming of age saga that virtually any of us can instantly relate to. One of the funniest songs comes in the second act with “I Wish I Could Go Back to College.” How many of us, after enjoying four years of life in the dorms, when our biggest worry was being able to make it to class in the morning after a night of partying, didn’t instantly discover that we were in no way prepared for the challenges of the real world. Yikes!
The play is also enormously entertaining in the way it keeps shoving that reality in your face, as shows with cute puppets are really not supposed to. Among the highlights: the song “Everyone’s a Little Bit Racist,” which does a brilliant job of demonstrating how people can be politically correct on one subject, but not so much on others; and “The Internet is for Porn,” a truly laugh-out-loud number about how virtually nothing on the Internet comes close to matching the popularity of pornography.
The combination of puppets and, shall we say, the ugly truths about the real world, is a great combination.
Mad Cow gives us a superb production, starting with the selection of some terrific actors in the leads. Faith Boles is a riot as Gary Coleman, ex-child actor turned cynical apartment complex superintendent, and so is Maya Handa Naff as Christmas Eve, the Japanese therapist who worries because she has no clients.
Paul Padilla is equally good as Brian, an aspiring comedian who just got laid off from his day job — his solo number “I’m Not Wearing Underwear Today” is pretty priceless — and he joins a cast that helps make “Avenue Q” a show that allows us to face up to life’s daily ugliness, and to laugh about it and feel better about how we tackle it every day.
“Avenue Q” runs now through July 3 at the theater at 54 W. Church St. in downtown Orlando. For tickets or reservations, call (407) 297-8788 or visit Mad Cow Theatre.
Michael Freeman is an Orlando journalist, playwright and author of the book “Bloody Rabbit”. Contact him at Freelineorlando@gmail.com..