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R-rated ‘Q’

‘Sesame Street’ meets ‘Friends’ when semi-naughty ‘Avenue Q’ hits stage

Kerri Brackin, Trekkie Monster and Jason Heymann in the national touring production of “Avenue Q.”  Best of Broadway (John Daughtry Best of Broadway)
Kerri Brackin, Trekkie Monster and Jason Heymann in the national touring production of “Avenue Q.” Best of Broadway (John Daughtry Best of Broadway)

America’s 20-somethings and 30-somethings lived on “Sesame Street” growing up. Now they can live on a more mature, imaginary puppet street named “Avenue Q.”

This puppet musical for adults clearly tapped into something powerful when it debuted in New York in 2003. It immediately transferred to a large Broadway theater, where it packed in crowds that averaged a generation or two younger than typical Broadway audiences.

Then it pulled off a giant upset at the Tony Awards in 2004, beating out the ultra-popular “Wicked” for Best Musical.

Today, “Avenue Q” is still running in New York – and also knocking ’em dead in the national tour that arrives in Spokane tonight.

It’s about a mythical New York street called Avenue Q, where a collection of fresh, struggling college graduates are living out a sort of downscale “Friends”-like existence, looking for love and looking for work.

And yes, most of the characters are made of felt and plush, and look like Muppets. Actors, in full view of the audience, operate the puppets and provide the voices.

So we posed the question to two figures connected with the show: What is the appeal of “Avenue Q”?

“The target audience is kind of college graduates and the younger crowd and they can definitely relate to all that is going on in the play,” said Brent Michael DiRoma, who plays the main character of Princeton.

“But I think everyone, no matter how old, can relate to someone in the show.”

The show’s producers also contrived to make Princeton – the puppet himself – available to field a few questions via e-mail (although we suspect the words actually belong to the character’s creators and writers).

Here’s what Princeton said about the appeal of his neighborhood: “Avenue Q is full of friends, who will always be there for me. I mean, come on! Gary Coleman is my super. What’s not to love?!?!”

Yes, Gary Coleman is a character in the show, a building superintendent. Don’t expect the real TV star – he’s an actor portraying the real TV star. It’s one of only three characters who are not puppets.

Princeton might not be the best person to explain the show’s appeal, since he doesn’t seem to even be aware that he’s in a show. But DiRoma, who landed his role only four months after graduating from college, has some perspective.

“When I got this job, I was in Princeton’s shoes,” he said, by phone from a Los Angeles tour stop. “I had graduated college, although not with a B.A. in English, and I was searching for a job, something I was very passionate about.”

He describes Princeton as not exactly naïve, “but a little gullible at times.”

Despite the puppets, “Avenue Q” is definitely not for children. If it were a movie it might be rated R or PG-13 for language and even a little comic puppet nudity. One of its most popular songs is titled “The Internet is for Porn.”

Yet according to New York Times reviewer Ben Brantley, it “isn’t nearly as outrageous” as “South Park,” to name another TV show beloved of the same generation. Brantley said it speaks with “seductive directness to theatergoers on the fair side of 40 in their own language.”

DiRoma said the show often gets a few walk-outs, but that “if you come open-minded and ready to have a good time, you will.”

“Avenue Q” is notable less for its naughtiness than for its good-natured and affectionate tone. The creators – Jeff Whitty, Robert Lopez and Jeff Marx – aimed to capture the “Sesame Street” appeal in more ways than one.

“It’s a show that pays homage to all of those children’s TV shows we saw growing up that had puppets and humans living in harmony and in tandem – and learning life’s lessons,” said DiRoma.

“So that’s what the show is about.”

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