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Spotlight on the Arts: Avenue Q at Lab Theater

More than 20 million people quit their jobs in the last half of 2021. Economists and sociologists call it The Great Resignation and The Big Quit. Well, there’s a fun-loving group of puppets and their human counterparts on Avenue Q at Lab Theater that just may have the answer to why this is happening.

When Avenue Q opens, we find each of the main characters reflecting on the state of their life. There’s Brian, whose self-evaluation is triggered by an impending birthday – and nuptials. He thought he’d be a comedian on late night TV by now. But instead, he’s just unemployed.

Although kind of pretty and pretty damn smart, Kate can’t figure out why she doesn’t have a boyfriend - or even a date.

Broke and the butt of everyone’s jokes, Different Strokes Gary Coleman bemoans being a superintendent on Avenue Q. It could be worse, I suppose. He could be working for the Florida Department of Corrections as a prison guard!

And then there’s Princeton, who just graduated from college. He’s unhappy too, but it’s got nothing to do with his student loans.

“I thought everything was going to be perfect,” Princeton bemoans. “I thought I’d have a job. I thought I would immediately go into the real world, and suddenly everything started crashing down all over. I have no idea what’s going on. I thought the hard part was over, but its’ not!”

United by their mutual dysphoria, Brian, Kate, Gary, Princeton and their friends break into song. After all, Avenue Q is a top-notch, Tony-award winning musical. And their opening act anthem is one that will resonate with every soul-searching post-pandemic employee who has either quit or contemplated quitting their lousy, low-paying, underappreciated job.

“It sucks to be me. It there anybody here it doesn’t suck to be? It sucks to be me!”

What ensues is a search for purpose, a quest for meaning. Just like the 20 million Americans who’ve participated in The Big Quit, the denizens of Avenue Q question what they want to do with the rest of their lives, what makes their heart sing and, most importantly, if not now, then when?

Along the way they confront a number of timely topics. For example, Rod has to come to terms with his feelings for his roomie, which has Nicky singing “If You Were Gay.” And everyone on Avenue Q is forced to admit that “Everyone’s A Little Bit Racist.”

“Everyone’s a little bit racist sometimes. Doesn’t mean we go around committing hate crimes. Look around and you will find, no one’s really color blind. Maybe it’s a fact that all should face. Everyone makes judgments based on race…. If we all could just admit that we are racists a little bit, even though we all know that it’s wrong, maybe it would help us get along.”

This latter subject comes up because, well, maybe I should have told you this sooner, some of the residents of Avenue Q are puppets - like Princeton, Kate Monster, Rod and Nicky. But on Avenue Q, they and their human counterparts don’t pay a moment’s notice to their differences. Whether they’re puppet, monster, black, white or a blue or yellow bad idea bear, it just doesn’t matter.

And, after all, maybe that’s the way it should be.

Of course, Princeton concedes that this message is undoubtedly easier to accept coming from a puppet.

“I, I definitely think it’s a little bit easier because, to be honest, I get to have so much more fun with a lot of these serious, serious issues that are always so hard core. But I’m not really that way, so it’s nice to be able to loosen up," he said.

That said, Rod observes that to accept those around us, we must first accept ourselves.

“What I’ve learned is that I can’t deal with everyone around me unless I can deal with myself, and with myself, I’m looking to be [sighs heavily] authentic. I’m really working on that. I’m paying a looooooooot of money for it too. Hah. But I think things are gonna work out and I’m feeling like I might be able to have someone special in my life,” he said.

In the end, Avenue Q stands for the proposition that it’s only by helping others that you can truly find purpose and meaning in life.

Nicky says it best.

“It’s really important that people take care of each other, their friends, and you have to give what you want to get back in life. It’s not just material things, but love and friendship and just being there and being supportive.”

That might sound a little preachy, but Avenue Q makes no apologies for being a morality play in the finest tradition. Its message lands - and not just because it’s delivered by puppets.

The writing is so smart, spot-on and funny that some have likened Avenue Q to Sesame Street meets Sex and the City. The music and lyrics are toe-tapping, head-nodding, insanely AWESOME. And along those lines, Princeton, Kate Monster, Rod and Nicky’s alter egos, Steven Michael Kennedy, Ruthgena Faraco, Ken Johnson and Todd Lyman deliver extraordinary vocal performances, particularly in songs like “Fantasies Come True” and “There’s a Fine, Fine Line.”

Although, keeping it real, Lucy B. Slut’s alter ego, Gabrielle Lansden, brings down the house with her steamy, sensual rendition of “Special.” It’s a “Wrecking Ball” performance that’ll give you “Fever.” That’s for sure.

A tip of the hat is also in order for Director Carmen Crussard, Lab’s Artistic Director Annette Trossbach and Musical Director Earl Sparrow for the quality of both the vocals and the acting. Few actors have prior experience as puppeteers, but Kennedy, Faraco, Johnson and cohorts do a remarkable job of not only having their characters evoke the proper facial expressions, head bobs and demeanor, but seamlessly fading into the background along with the scenery and set.

“I think it’s really important as a puppet to develop that puppet-audience relationship,” Nicky explains. “I think we need to make sure that we understand that the audience is a character, we’re characters and we’re all just normal, trying to get along.”

Avenue Q will be on stage at Lab Theater Thursdays through Sundays now through March 27.

I’ll let the Avenue Q crew have the final word.

“For now we’re happy if not overjoyed. And we’ll accept the things we cannot avoid. For now. But only for now. Only for now …. Sex. Is only for now. Your hair. Is only for now. This show. Is only for now. Only for now. Only for now. Don’t stress. Relax. Except for death and taxes everything in life is only for now. Only for now. Only for now.”

Programming Note: Avenue Q may not be appropriate for young viewers as the characters use abundant profanity in dialogue and musical lyrics and many songs and sub-plots address decidedly adult themes, such as racism, pornography, homosexuality, and schadenfreude.

Historical Note: With 2,534 performances, Avenue Q ranks 23rd on the list of longest running shows in Broadway history. The show ended its Broadway run on September 13, 2009. It then reopened Off-Broadway a few weeks later.

To read more stories about the arts in Southwest Florida visit Tom Hall's website: SWFL Art in the News.

This Spotlight on the Arts feature is funded in part by Naomi Bloom, Jay & Toshiko Tompkins, and Julie & Phil Wade.