NORMAN — A musical about “foul-mouthed puppets on a dysfunctional Sesame Street,” as director/choreographer Shawn Churchman puts it in a program note, may sound like a disturbing, downbeat evening of theater. But there was something surprisingly sweet, hard to resist and crowd-pleasing about the University of Oklahoma version of the Tony Award-winning vehicle.
“Avenue Q” is set in a grungy New York neighborhood, populated by both puppets and people. Cast members, many clad in black, had their hands full, not only manipulating one or more hand-puppets, but singing for them — to the point that the line between puppet and person became blurred.
Making it very clear that we weren't watching the children's television show was an early number in which the company laments that “It Sucks to Be Me” after being asked, “What Do You Do with a B.A. in English?”
Aaron Boudreaux was the puppet Princeton, a young man searching for “Purpose,” and the gay puppet Rod, wistfully wondering vocally if his roommate is, too. Matching his efforts nicely were those of Jamie Butemeyer as Kate Monster, the puppet who longs for Princeton's undivided love, and Lucy T. Slut, a Mae West-like puppet who gains and tires of it.
Ethan Kahn was hilarious as Nicky, the puppet roommate searching for sexual identity with Rod in their “Fantasies Come True” dream-dance sequence, before finding Rod a boyfriend with an Internet ad.
Kahn was even funnier, however, as Trekkie Monster, who dampens everyone's enthusiasm for technology by chiming in that “The Internet Is For Porn” in one of the show's most outrageous songs.
Courtney Nevin also had her moments as Kate Monster's bad boss puppet, and joining Kahn as one of two Bad Idea Bear puppets, urging drinkers to drink too much, and supplying rope to the suicidal.
Balancing the puppets were the people, played with great panache by Sean McGee as the clown-like Brian, Dorcas Leung as his stereotypical Asian wife, and Kyra Wharton as former child star Gary Coleman.
McGee led the company in a stirring rendition of “There Is A Life Outside Your Apartment,” while Leung explained to Kate in a delightful duet that you often want to kill the person you love. Spry, resilient and turning her use of a cane (due to an actual injury) into a valuable prop, Wharton was at her best explaining “Schadenfreude,” joy in others' misfortune.
Ending the evening on an upbeat note were a loving spoof-tribute to Dickensian generosity in “The Money Song,” and a moving performance by the company of the existentialist anthem, “For Now.” Backed by a six-piece band conducted by Harold Mortimer, the offbeat, R-rated musical is highly recommended.
— John Brandenburg