Thursday, July 10, 2008

Avenue Q: Righting a Wrong (Review)

TM and I went to see the musical "Avenue Q" before she left for Europe. It was a nice treat to see something we'd meant to see in New York. And since we had a two-show streak of seeing Tony Award-winning musicals when we lived in New York, it fit right in with that trend.

Now, sometimes it's easy to get down. It's easy to start feeling bad about the things you don't have, or the things you are not. But no matter how bad things get, I can always take comfort one fact: I’m not Dennis Polkow.

That’s because Mr. Polkow wrote the most clueless, wrongheaded review for "Avenue Q" I’ve seen in a long time, maybe ever. It’s one thing to go see a band and not “get” what they’re doing, or see them on a bad night, or be otherwise misled into writing an off-base review. But this was beyond the pale.

I couldn’t believe how wrong this guy was. And because the website for New City (the alt-weakly which published his egregious prose) sucks, I can’t link to the review because it’s not online. So I typed in the whole thing so it can be eviscerated here.

As a onetime summer camp counselor, my father frequently referenced the “lake rule,” which is to say, if a camper told a joke that was more funny than vulgar, fair enough. But if the joke was more vulgar than funny—and the campers were the ones that would decide—then the joketeller would be thrown in the lake.

OK Dennis, so far so good. Not sure where you’re going with this, but I’ll trust ya.

By this rule, the entire Cadillac Palace Theatre would be fully underwater by the end of one performance of the national touring production of “Avenue Q,” two of the most vacuous hours I can recall ever having spent in a theater.

Ah. You’re accusing the show of being vulgar. First of all, the show was not vulgar. The off-color portions are nothing compared to what’s seen at independent and storefront theatres throughout the country. I was more unnerved and uncomfortable at the one show I saw at Steppenwolf than I ever was at Ave Q. Second, the show is tremendously more funny than vulgar. By a factor of three or four.

This Generation X-targeted and conceived—and believe it or not, triple Tony-Award winning—musical attempts to satirize “Sesame Street”-type children’s shows with Jim Henson-like puppets in a manner so mean-spirited, cynical, narcissistic, sophomoric and yes, even pornographic (ranging from constant obscenities for their own sake to puppets copulating) with a score so trite that the children’s music it derides sounds like high art by comparison.

Damn. Where do I start with this behemoth of a sentence. Well, Ave Q is not an attempt to satirize children’s TV. It’s a depiction of what life is like for 20-somethings who graduate from college, move to the big city, and learn to cope with bad jobs, dating, student debt, commuting and all the other factors of life out on your own.

Constant obscenities for their own sake? Wrong on both counts. The swearing was not constant; there were stretches of dialogue that could’ve been on the Family Channel. And the cursing was usually to punctuate a point, express anger, etc. You want excessive cursing, listen to rap.

Mean spirited? I think you’re thinking of "Seinfeld." These characters are likeable, genuine, and generally sincere. Sure there’s one snotty bitch, but what musical doesn’t have a villain?*

Cynical? Of course 20-somethings are cynical. Once you get out of college and see how the real world works, you get cynical.

Sophomoric? I will grant you this isn’t Bertolt Brecht. This is a modern American musical with puppets…were you expecting highbrow?

Pornographic? There is simulated sex between puppets. This might have been shocking…if the South Park guys hadn’t done it even more graphically.

This is the Kate Monster (and actress Kelli Sawyer) we saw in Chicago. She has sex on stage with Princeton. Kate Monster, I mean.

Believe it or not? Yeah, I do believe it, Dennis, because it’s a remarkably funny and creative show.

And you want to talk narcissistic? How about making your readers suffer through a 65-word sentence? Good crap, not even the scribes at the Omaha World-Herald can match the wordiness you achieve here.

This is no clever send-up, say, the way Eddie Murphy used to hysterically parody Mr. Rogers on “Saturday Night Live,” nor the way “The Simpsons” or “South Park” cleverly lampoon cheesy animation: this is puerile puppetry that forgets that the satirer has to have at least as much imagination as the satiree for parody to be effectual. When a female impersonation of former child actor Gary Coleman, for instance, is revealed as the person who outdraws all of the other characters in “It Sucks to Be Me” by sucking the most, the irony is that putting up with a tired rerun of “Diff’rent Strokes” would seem like supreme comedy next to this show.

A-ha. So now we see that poor Mr. Polkow is clueless in addition to humorless. He’s reviewing the musical as satire—except it’s NOT SATIRE. It’s not trying to spoof Sesame Street, it’s about making your life in the big city. Using puppets is just one vehicle for telling the story, just like foreshadowing and the soliloquy are both vehicles for telling a story. And for the record, this show is much funnier than “Diff’rent Strokes.”

And to have a cheongsam-attired Asian-American actress sing every “l” as an “r” so that “love” becomes “ruv” achieves as indelicate an effect as if an African-American performer had been asked to sing in blackface.

Umm, apparently he fell asleep during the song “Everyone’s a Little Bit Racist.” Besides, blackface is a much more incendiary piece of our American history than the Asian-American accent. The comparison is, like everything else in his review, way off-base.

Trekkie Monster appreciates the multiple uses and benefits of the World Wide Web.

By the way, here’s the official blurb from Broadway in Chicago:

AVENUE Q is the story of Princeton, a bright-eyed college grad who comes to New York City with big dreams and a tiny bank account. He soon discovers that the only neighborhood in his price range is Avenue Q; still, the neighbors seem nice. There's Brian the out-of-work comedian and his therapist fianceƩ Christmas Eve; Nicky the good-hearted slacker and his roommate Rod -- a Republican investment banker who seems to have some sort of secret; an Internet addict called Trekkie Monster; and a very cute kindergarten teaching assistant named Kate. And would you believe the building's superintendent is Gary Coleman?!? (Yes, that Gary Coleman.) Together, Princeton and his newfound friends struggle to find jobs, dates, and their ever-elusive purpose in life.

Does that sound like satire? Or unfunny??

Finally, here's a review from a guy who got it: Chris Jones of the Tribune. (Which is good cause it explains the appearance of an understudy in the second act of the night we saw it, which happened to be opening night.) In fact, here’s a list of almost entirely glowing reviews collected by Theatre in Chicago. There is only one outlier. Guess who?

Dennis Polkow, it sucks to be you.

* Polkow thinks my use of "bitch" was excessive and swearing for its own sake.

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