It makes perfect sense that the two cutest characters of “Avenue Q” — now being presented at the Rhino Theatre in Pompton Lakes — are also the biggest trouble makers. The two Bad Idea Bears, voiced with cheerful chirpiness by Ann Alfano and Jessica Appel, exists only to encourage other characters to do bad things, like a devil sitting on the shoulder of a character in an old movie (except there’s no angel, here, sitting on the other shoulder).
The faces of the other puppet characters are cute and colorful and big-eyed, too — in the style of the Muppets of “Sesame Street” — but they deal with real-life problems, including unemployment, loneliness and racism. “Avenue Q” is hardly depressing, though. Written by Jeff Whitty, with songs by Robert Lopez and Jeff Marx, it’s a parody of “Sesame Street” that somehow manages to retain much of that show’s resolute optimism.
“Avenue Q” may touch upon some of the grimier aspects of human existence, but it is ultimately an uplifting, feel-good musical, and the Rhino Theatre’s excellent production of it is a real treat.
“Avenue Q” opened off-Broadway in 2003, moved to Broadway the same year, won three Tonys (including Best Musical) and ran until 2009. It then moved back off-Broadway, to New World Stages, where it still is. It has some obscenities and sexual references, and a few raunchy jokes.
“Contains Adult Language and Themes,” says the Rhino program. Think of it as an R-rated movie.
It’s also a hybrid between a puppet show and a traditional musical. Most of the characters are puppets (made by Larry Pelham of Dover Little Theatre), and you see them being manipulated, in plain sight, and voiced by human actors. There are also some characters, though, who are not puppets. They wear colorful clothes, while the puppeteer/actors dress in black.
Friendly interaction between humans and puppets is one of the elements reminiscent of “Sesame Street.” There are other echoes that are even more direct, though. The character Trekkie speaks in the same gruff, sandpaper voice as Cookie Monster, but is addicted to porn, not cookies. Rod and Nicky look and sound like Bert and Ernie; the twist is that Rod is a closeted homosexual, and secretly pines for a romantic relationship with Nicky.
At its core, though, “Avenue Q” is basically a romantic comedy about Princeton, a recent college graduate having a hard time surviving in the real world — “What Do You Do With a B.A. in English?” is something of a theme song for him — and Kate, a schoolteacher who dreams of opening a school of her own. They are voiced with great warmth and charm by Greg Gwyn and Mary Kate Portera, respectively. Working hard, Gwyn also voices Rod and Portera also voices the nightclub singer and temptress, Lucy.
As in any Hollywood comedy, Princeton and Kate meet awkwardly and fall for each other, but are then separated by some somewhat contrived plot twists before being reunited in the final scene.
In the rousing, final full-ensemble song, “For Now” (in which a Donald Trump joke has been substituted for the original George W. Bush reference), characters acknowledge that “Everyone’s a little bit unsatisfied” and “Everyone goes ’round a little empty inside.” It’s one more harsh but genially delivered message from a gleefully subversive musical.
“Avenue Q” is at the Rhino Theatre in Pompton Lakes, Feb. 16 and 23-24 at 8 p.m. and Feb. 18 and 25 at 3 p.m.; visit rhinotheatre.com.