Avenue Q and Insignificant Others: musical comedies with bite
"Who are the people in your neighborhood?" Wasn't that the consciousness-raising question we were coaxed into asking as tots by the irresistibly catchy song stylings of public television? Well, if they're the mix of humans and Muppet-esque monsters of Avenue Q, they're strikingly but only superficially reminiscent of the denizens of that sidewalk utopia propagated by PBS children's programming. After all, Sesame Street began way before anyone could stay shut up all day surfing the Internet for porn, like Trekkie Monster (Christian Anderson), let alone sing about it.
The inhabitants of Avenue Q are also the friends, allies, love interests, and fellow losers whom a recent college grad with few prospects and an elusive purpose puppet protagonist Princeton (voiced and operated by Robert McClure) can sort of maybe count on to get him through a disillusioning world that already seems downhill the moment one's rolled off the university assembly line.
Such is the premise and highly qualified promise of Robert Lopez and Jeff Marx's much-hailed musical comedy, which makes a vibrant San Francisco debut at the Orpheum Theatre in a Broadway touring production happily packed with energy and a talented, impressively versatile cast. Many jaded years after Big Bird was first through with watching you, Lopez and Marx's reappropriation of such small-screen indoctrination serves up a deflated age writ Broadway large, an arch nostalgia tailor-made for an overeducated, underemployed population of thirtysomething slacker-searchers.
Avenue Q mines TV and Broadway in equal measure, with knowing references to each in a kind of pop cultural marriage overtly joined in one show tune<\d>loving puppet named Rod, a closeted stockbroker who plays a kind of veiled Bert to sloppy but good-natured roommate Nicky's Ernie. And if disappointment, humiliation, and an understated resilience are things everyone shares to varying degrees on Avenue Q (a run-down row of New York City brownstones with off-the-beaten-track rents a decidedly grubby version of Sesame Street nicely realized by set designer Anna Louizos), they also come together in one neat, compact package that isn't even Styrofoam based: Gary Coleman (voiced and operated by Carla Renata), the has-been TV child actor and ignominious tabloid fixture here turned, in one of many inspired touches, into the building super.
Smart, lively, and consistently funny, Avenue Q pretty well lives up to the heap of praise that brought the 2004 musical a small mound of Tony Awards. The show lags a bit in the second act (where, in medium-funny numbers like "Schadenfreude," the formula can begin to wear thin), but it's never a bore. And if there's inevitably a sentimental aspect to the "it sucks to be you and me" universality of its theme, it winds up on what is probably the best possible note contained in the double-edged line "Everything in life is only for now" which at the last moment smuggles in a defiant optimism clothed as ambivalence and compromise, much as throughout the play a certain felt reality (admittedly of a decidedly middle-class variety) comes agreeably filtered by felt puppets.
Insignificant Others is a new musical comedy featuring its own assortment of lovable college grads unleashed in another big (or anyway biggish) city, by San Francisco playwright-composer-lyricist L.<\!s>Jay Kuo. It may not have anything like the budget of Avenue Q and in truth doesn't manage the tightrope walk between its sentimental theme and a cutting comic irony as smoothly either but while uneven in both conception and execution, Insignificant Others nevertheless has some significant talent and inspiration behind it.
The story concerns a circle of five twentysomethings from Cleveland who relocate to San Francisco with hopes of embarking on lives of romance and adventure beyond the workaday world's cubicle walls. At the center of these tales of the city is a buxom young firecracker named Margaret (the strong and winning Sarah Kathleen Farrell) on the lookout for Mr. Right a designation given considerable latitude in a city with a scarce supply of heterosexual men, which becomes the excuse for three of the show's most crowd-pleasing and clever numbers.
Friendships drift, but a crisis draws the characters together again, though this central thread comes over as both weak and overblown, and its resolution too pat and syrupy. Insignificant Others' best parts remain the more comedic ones, wherein Kuo's generally polished lyrics and able if less consistently original music tend to reach their highest points.<\!s>*
Through Sept. 2, $30<\d>$90
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1192 Market, SF
Through Sept. 23, $35<\d>$39
Thurs.<\d>Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 2 p.m.
221 Fourth St., SF