So rarely does the Walton Arts Center in Fayetteville host a show worth its steep ticket prices that it's doubly striking when that show turns out to be provocative and challenging in the way of “Avenue Q.” A smash hit on Broadway in 2004, the show's reputation for plush perversion and raunchy sing-a-longs preceded its short stay in Fayetteville. However, its left-leaning politics and in-your-face humor didn't keep audiences away. Even the very last performance on Sunday night played to a packed house.
On the surface, the main gimmick has been done to death. Peter Jackon's “Meet the Feebles” trotted out adult situations in a “Sesame Street” setting long ago. Even “The Muppet Show” was more of a psychedelic experience than you might remember. Thankfully, “Avenue Q” doesn't rely solely on the clever subversion of children's television for all of its laughs. Indeed, the show uses puppetry in a way that we haven't quite seen before.
Actors stride along the stage, their puppets perched on their arms like ventriloquist dummies, happily singing and performing without the least deference to illusion. You only realize the gambit is working when you by chance notice that a given puppet has switched handlers, so effective are the staging and choreography. Arkansas native Jason Moore received a well-deserved Tony nomination for envisioning such a performance in his direction of the original Broadway production, and his curiously theatrical deployment of puppetry is so singular that a show like this might never be pulled off again.
Still, it's all in service of the songs. “Everyone's a Little Bit Racist” reigns as the surefire crowd-pleaser, but “If You Were Gay” and a little ditty called “I'm Not Wearing Underwear Today” prove just as hilarious. And “There's a Fine, Fine Line” wrings the most pathos out of felt and googly eyes since Kermit wistfully beckoned “The Rainbow Connection” or lamented that “It's not Easy Being Green.”
A thin plot and mawkish sentiments cushion the show's off-color humor, but some of its concerns feel inauthentic here in flyover country, out of place among the mass-market cultural atmosphere of the Walton Arts Center, and would be more precisely aimed at New Yorkers of a particular age and class. The digs at racial sensitivity and sexuality are well-trod in all but the most conservative popular entertainment, and the show's ultimately glib politics are held in thrall to its generationally specific combination of self-loathing and entitlement. These puppets can profess racism all they want. Aimlessness is their real cross to bear.