The cast of Hot Summer Nights / Theatre Raleighs AVENUE Q

4 stars
(out of 5)
Hot Summer Nights / Theatre Raleigh
Fletcher Opera House, Progress Energy Center
through Aug. 19

It’s hard enough being one character on stage in a musical.

In Hot Summer Nights / Theater Raleigh’s lively production of AVENUE Q, Heather Maggs, Adam Poole and Erik and Annie Floor play ten.

They’re the heroic puppeteers animating, speaking and singing the roles of the self-described “people of fur” (and fuzz) who occupy this slightly scuzzy neighborhood well beyond the city’s high-rent district. And since their characters weave in and out of the various scenes—and some of the puppets require two of the four actors to animate—the logistics and quick-changes are pretty intense at times.

So credit them—and director Richard Roland—that you couldn’t tell by looking on the opening night. But after a performance that was never less than smooth and assured in Fletcher Opera House, why did I still leave this show feeling somewhat bemused?

As many readers already know, the titled tract of real estate in this comic musical is something of an urban staging ground, a pre-professional purgatory for a group of relatively disaffected Generation Y’ers like central character Princeton (Erik Floor), recently out of college and now facing lives in the world as adults.

None of them are all that ready. Princeton has a grubstake from his parents that he’s burning through on beer, but zilch for employment prospects with a B.A. in English. Lucy Monster (Annie Floor) is a kindergarten teaching assistant with no romantic prospects; she dreams of having her own “Monsterssori School,” but is making no headway toward it. Rod (Erik Floor) is a type-A (and robin’s egg-blue) Republican banker who secretly wants his slacker roomie and long-time friend, Nicky (Poole)—but he’ll never, ever come out of the closet to pursue him. Meanwhile, Trekkie Monster (Poole) stays holed up in his apartment, addicted to Internet porn.

On the human side of the on-stage equation, Christmas Eve (Maya Naff) is a martial-minded Japanese-American social worker who keeps scaring off prospective clients. Her live-in boyfriend, Brian (Jesse Gephart), just lost his job in catering. And in a particularly odious bit of scripted schadenfreude by playwright Jeff Whitty, the superintendent for these apartments is Gary Coleman (Yolanda Rabun), the real-life, faded (and now, late) former child actor who lived just long enough to see his name turned into a punchline at the end of a series of medical, financial and professional reversals.

In brief scenes and animated video sequences a la Sesame Street (which the show clearly satirizes), this motley crew confronts a series of by now familiar discontents as young adults. Robert Lopez and Jeff Marx’ upbeat songs reassure us that “Everyone’s a Little Bit Racist” and “You Can Be as Loud as the Hell You Want (When You’re Making Love).” The latter, a first act barn-burner, gives singer Yolanda Rabun a showcase to show off significant chops.

Sentimental—but still satirical—songs help Kate decrypt the hidden meaning of Princeton’s mixtape in act one, and permit Christmas Eve to sagely advise her on love—and anger management—in act two.

All of it—including the gently nihilistic closer, “For Now” (which came with a fitting regional upgrade in lyrics)—was funny enough. And music director Jay Wright’s band sparkled through the snarky score.

But as I left the theater, a nagging sense of disaffection hung around. Over-identification—with these characters? Perhaps a mild existential flu, somehow catching from the plot? Or was it something else?

As I was looking for words in the fifth paragraph of this review, one insight occurred to me. Yes, the cast of characters were a group of disenchanted Generation Y’ers. And I imagine that term seemed far less passé in 2003, when this work premiered off-Broadway.

In that year, by almost all accounts, Avenue Q was cutting edge. Yes, it challenges our consciences that gay and lesbian acceptance still remains an acceptable political chew toy in 2012. But don’t most of the rest of these issues feel, by now, a little dated?

How many of us would have imagined when Jonathan Larson’s Rent first premiered that it would gradually become a period piece? Is the same thing happening, at present, with Avenue Q? Nine years later, does the current crop of post-collegiates still feel, in the words of another first-act anthem, that it sucks to be them? Or has the culture moved on from that moment to another one?