Pride Day has come and gone, but if you’ve still got a yen to see guys put their hands up fuzzy backsides while singing showtunes then Avenue Q is the play for you. Fresh from a sizzling Broadway run, the Tony Award-winning show brings its perfect blend of catchy songs and horny Muppets to Toronto’s Elgin Theatre beginning Tue, Jul 29.
The show’s setting is unapologetically evocative of Sesame Street circa 1969: slightly grimy row houses softened by flower boxes and curtains line the downtown sidewalks. Streetlamps glow invitingly. A seemingly integrated mixture of Muppet and human neighbours interact in perfect harmony (the show’s website clarifies distinctly that there is no connection between Avenue Q and Jim Henson or Sesame Street).
Into this familiar setting arrives Princeton, freshly graduated from college and ready to make his mark on the world — just as soon as he can find his purpose in life. Princeton’s a real go-getter type, full of vim, vinegar and puppeteer Robert McClure’s hand.
The Avenue’s resident good girl, Kate Monster (played by puppeteer Kelli Sawyer), is immediately drawn to this preppy dynamo. She’s a soft-spoken kindergarten assistant whose romantic dreams hide a kinky predilection for oral, anal and everything in between (be prepared for full puppet nudity and explicit puppet sex acts). Unfortunately, Kate discovers there’s competition for Princeton’s affections in the form of cabaret singer Lucy the Slut (also played by Sawyer). Lucy’s big felty tits get everybody’s blood boiling, especially chronic masturbator Trekkie Monster (Cullen R Titmas), who sings a showstopping number called “The Internet is for Porn.”
Human compatriots share equal stage time on the Avenue. Asian therapist Christmas Eve (Angela Ai) shrilly berates slacker boyfriend Brian (Cole Porter) about their upcoming nuptials, while Gary Coleman (played by Carla Renata) surfaces from sitcom limbo as manager of the neighbourhood’s apartment block.
It would be a gritty sort of utopia if it weren’t for the evil machinations of the Bad Idea Bears: two Care Bears from hell who giggle behind their furry little paws while urging the Avenue’s residents to fornicate, adulterate, vacillate and plot homicide.
Living a little on the outside of this close-knit group is a Republican investment banker named Rod (also played by McClure). He’s your typical uptight conservative and lives with a scruffily affable roommate named Nicky (David Benoit). Rod talks endlessly about a fictitious girlfriend who lives up in Canada, while pining secretly for his puppet friend sleeping in the bed across the room. Think Bert and Ernie, but with erections.
“I have a very special place in my heart for Rod,” confesses creator Jeff Whitty. “For me he’s the heart of the show.”
The playwright actually surprised himself in creating a card-carrying Republican closet case with such a sympathetic manner.
“If you had asked me, having not written Rod, if I could find sympathy with the Log Cabin Republicans, I would say I’d be viciously satirical in writing one. But my heart melts when I think about Rod’s situation.
“There’s a scene with the therapist Christmas where Rod tells her about his ‘friend’ who is gay, an investment banker and a Republican. She tells him that his friend is good for nothing and should stay in the closet. It really shows his situation.”
Any nascent fears that conservative theatregoers might feel uncomfortable with a central gay plot line have been happily swept away by effusive receptions from red and blue states alike.
“There’s this nice moment where Rod’s character is coming out, and you feel the audience hook into the character,” Whitty says. “They’re feeling bad for this thing that is made of foam and fur and sits on someone’s hand. I love that the audience can go to that place with this character.”
Certainly Avenue Q’s catchy songs also go a long way in pulling viewers in. Musical creators Jeff Marx and Robert Lopez’s brilliant tongue-in-cheek numbers are eminently hummable, with ditties like “Everyone’s a Little Racist” and “If You Were Gay” adding an irreverent twist to social conscience.
“So many of the songs are educational in their basis,” says Whitty. “It’s funny watching these puppets teaching lessons that are a little bit cracked.”
The playwright’s strong sense of activism has always been firmly couched in humour, but he has taken some flack for his outspokenness in the past. A letter that Whitty wrote to Tonight Show host Jay Leno became a lightning rod for homophobes and apologists alike after unintentionally hitting the internet. In it Whitty gently chastised Leno’s many jokes at gay men’s expense and asked the comedian to consider that gay male culture isn’t all mincing and lisping.
“You don’t want to be a bad sport,” Whitty says. “You want to be able to take the punches like everyone else, but I think people don’t really understand our history. They think we just emerged in the 1970s, but gay people were being lobotomized by force at one point.
“If this history is catalogued and understood and disseminated, I will laugh at any gay joke you tell me.”
The ensuing furor found Whitty being interviewed about his plea by a hostile CNN anchor and lambasted by fellow gay comedian Bob Smith. Smith defended Leno and publicly ridiculed what he perceived as Whitty’s oversensi-tivity and lack of humour.
“I thought it was all so gross,” Whitty says, “especially when I found out that Bob had actually been on the Leno show a few times before all of this. I think ultimately these gay apologists don’t want to be seen as bad sports, but they don’t think about the effect on other gay people.”
Many of those other gay people responded in force, giving a real boost to Whitty by reminding him that standing up to subtler, systemic bigotry can be as gratifying as it is difficult.”I got letters from so many rural people, thanking me for writing those letters,” he says quietly, clearly still affected by the experience.
Despite the hullaballoo and the unexpected friendly fire, Whitty has been able to rationalize Smith’s response in a surprisingly cogent way. “I think a lot of the criticism from the Bob Smiths of the world was from people living in safe cities,” he says. “It’s much more challenging in the rural areas where you don’t have the numbers of protection.”
Raised by PFLAG-going parents and happily ensconced in New York with his partner of five years, Whitty is still very aware of the specific challenges facing queer folks in more isolated areas.
“The problem with being gay is that it’s harder than being a racial minority. As a minority you’re raised in a family going through the whole thing. As a gay person you have the possibility of living a very sadly reduced, lonely existence.
“We have a very different civil rights struggle.”