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Cute and coarse enliven 'Avenue Q' (5 out of 5 Stars)

By Kyle Minor, Republican-American


Long before Punch and Judy were little shavers, puppets have gotten away with murder. They have acted badly in ways their human counterparts only think about but dare not try.

Charlie McCarthy insults W.C. Fields and other fools he'd rather not suffer and, more recently, Seth McFarlane's eponymous antiheroic teddy bear from the movie "Ted" demonstrates a far cruder imp of the perverse.

Yet Jim Henson's puppets inhabiting "Sesame Street" personify the angels of a better nature as they teach our impressionabe toddlers civility, tolerance and acceptance while instructing their young audience in matters grammatical and semantic.

The cute, fuzzy creatures of "Avenue Q," the beguiling and often wickedly funny musical creation of Jeff Whitty (book) and Robert Lopez and Jeff Marx (music and lyrics), are cut from the same cloth as their polite, PBS prototypes. Yet they prove capable of acting on the same animalistic impulses as their human manipulators: they may be puppets, but they're as human as their audience. This juxtaposition of cute and coarse threads together much of the laughter so rife throughout their performance.

Since "Avenue Q" opened on Broadway in 2003, where it walked off with a backpack full of Tony Awards and racked up 2,534 performances (it's still running Off-Broadway), this freshly conceived musical has sprawled onto stages everywhere, from high schools to regional theaters. One would be hard-pressed to find a snappier production than the one running through Oct. 18 at TheatreWorks New Milford. Directed and choreographed by Bradford Blake with musical direction by Charles Smith, the production smartly mines "Avenue Q" for all of its naughty humor while retaining its disarming appeal.

Mike L'Altrella, who plays recent college graduate Princeton (and his handy alter ego Rod) starts the charm factor on a high note upon entering Avenue Q in search of an apartment, lamenting "What Do You Do with a B.A. in English?" The rest of the denizens join Princeton with the catchy "It Sucks To Be Me" and it's off to the races.

Princeton settles in with his new, multicultural neighbors quickly. Soon enough he feeds a mutual attraction with Kate Monster (the equally engaging Patricia McCarthy), though it takes time and several songs to get the lovers together. And the songs are pips. Among the numbers, "If You Were Gay," "Everyone's a Little Bit Racist" and "Schadenfreude" are among the most humorous.

Furthermore, these songs may strike the unacquainted eye as possibly offensive, to simply read their titles. Yet, as composed by Lopez and Marx, theatergoers embrace them for their enchanting tone and resounding truth. As performed by L'Altrella, McCarthy and the entire ensemble, the songs and scenes have ease, energy and irresistible charm.

TheatreWorks' production values are as professional and polished as the performances, including the dead-on set.

Fair warning goes to any potential theatergoer inclined to bring the kids: better not. One of the show's laugh-out-loud scenes culminates in a bit of ribaldry wherein two passionate puppets create "the beast with two backs," to quote Shakespeare.

If any parents or guardians aren't quite comfortable with their youngsters watching, say, randy animals engaged in procreative acts on the National Geographic channel, they may want to spare themselves the awkward burden of explaining the sight of two bare-butt puppets impersonating an overloaded washing machine. The loss of innocence never caused such merriment.

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