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Avenue Q

Provocative Puppet Jokes -- for Adults

The late great Jim Henson spawned a passel of subversive, potty-mouthed muppet performances for adults, most recently, his eponymous Puppet Improv, in which beloved figures like Miss Piggy and Kermit the Frog promenaded about the stage, bowing to the dirty dictates of audience members who couldn’t resist the idea of a saucy barb from a plush, lovable childhood icon. It’s a wonderful gambit, if only because the idea of a muppet -- god bless its googly-eyed, yarn-haired soul -- spewing swear words and dealing in risqué puns is invariably hilarious.

Bawdiness and “adult” humor aside, there’s a refreshing innocence to all the laughs and subversion in "Avenue Q", the 2004 Tony Award-winning smash hit in which a bunch of rubber-mouthed, impossibly endearing puppets, designed by Rick Lyon, discover life, love, and themselves. If the puppets are reminiscent of the cutesy gang from "Sesame Street", it’s probably intentional; co-songwriter Jeff Marx, who worked alongside Lyon on the landmark show for tots, joined forces with Robert Lopez to come up with the concept and story for "Avenue Q". The result is a glorious collaboration that pairs sunny, welcome-to-the-neighborhood sanguinity with world-weary chutzpah. It’s a puppet show with a twist, but thankfully for us, the sendup is neither malicious nor overly gloomy.

Instead of starting us off with a “Sunny Day” chorus, the musical begins with our genial yet down-in-the-dumps protagonist Princeton (played by Robert McClure), a recent college grad with lots of bills and zero job prospects, singing his own anthem, “What Do You Do with a B.A. in English?” Despite his many travails -- like getting laid off before he even starts his new job -- Princeton mans up and decides he needs to find his purpose. That kind of 22-year old optimism, constantly blackened by the ominous shadow of the real world, suffuses the show with a sweetness that is altogether disarming.

Of course, Princeton gets sidetracked along the way when he finds an apartment at Avenue Q, a ramshackle tenement in an imaginary NYC borough. It’s here that he comes in contact with a plethora of monsters, humans, and puppets. The cast of characters is just as winning and includes an assistant kindergarten teacher named Kate Monster who also becomes Princeton’s love interest (played by a lively, silver-timbred Kelli Sawyer, who also plays bombshell bimbo Lucy the Slut), a closeted gay Republican investment banker named Rod (also played by McClure), Rod’s well-meaning, happy-go-lucky roommate Nicky (played by a delightfully versatile Christian Anderson), and an unshorn porn addict named Trekkie Monster (also played by Anderson) who appears to be a perverted sendup of the Cookie Monster. The cast is rounded out by three puppetless humans: the super of the building, former child star Gary Coleman (played by a chipper Carla Renata), a voluble Japanese psychotherapist named Christmas Eve (played by the brilliant Angela Ai), and Brian, her louse of a boyfriend and a wannabe stand-up comedian (Cole Porter).

What ensues is a charming coming-of-age story, accented by politically incorrect songs and subplots about sex, racism, homelessness, and coming out -- all delivered with a heartfelt yet frolicsome panache. Andrew Graham’s musical direction is impeccable. Humworthy ditties like “It Sucks to Be Me”, “Everyone’s a Little Bit Racist” and “The Internet is for Porn” are bandied about by the puppet provocateurs with all the mirth of an ABC sing-along. Some of the high points include Gary Coleman belting out an explanation of “Schadenfreude” to a newly homeless puppet, and happy-go-lucky Nicky playing up the urban myth of "Sesame Street’s" resident gay lovers Bert and Ernie with a loving reassurance to his roommate Rod that he would still be his friend “If You Were Gay.” The charming devilry of minor characters, the Bad Idea Bears (Christian Anderson and Minglie Chen), is also wickedly brilliant, and one can’t help but guffaw as, in their syrupy baby voices, they try to goad Princeton into guzzling beer or taking advantage of a drunken Kate Monster.

Howell Binkle’s buoyant lighting and Anna Louizos’ luminous dollhouse-esque sets add a bit of wonder to the mix, while Jason Moore’s taut direction lends perfect comic timing to all the actors’ gags and tricks. The use of two suspended monitors, which play cheeky instructional cartoons reminiscent of "Sesame Street" segments, is an inventive transitional device.

While the puppets -- who are so human in their perpetually bemused, open-mouthed expressions -- steal the show, the puppetmasters aren’t mere string-pullers who are concealed from the audience. Though it’s sometimes easy to forget the puppets are being manipulated, the actors are fully visible, as they sing, dance, sweat, and caper across the stage, sometimes juggling multiple roles. Perhaps because of this visibility, the show is made even richer, and the actors are just as much characters as their puppet friends, rather than mere colorless ventriloquists.

What’s so wonderful about this agile, funny, ill-mannered production is that unlike a lot of musicals, which take themselves (yawn) too seriously, its sense of playfulness enables it to transcend the gimmicky genre of musical theatre. This was apparently Lopez’s intention, as he was well aware of the bored, exasperated attitude younger people tend to harbor toward the stock musical. In this version, viewers get the happy ending, but there’s a dose of believable bittersweetness, as well. While lofty ambitions like finding one’s purpose might be a little too much to ask for, two hours of tickle-me-pink entertainment will be more than enough for most viewers.

Plays through Sept. 2nd
at the Orpheum Theatre
tickets are $30-90