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'Avenue Q' can really grow on you

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SAN DIEGO — If the words "Children's Television Workshop" light up old neural centers in your brain, consider yourself in the right demographic for "Avenue Q," the diverting Tony-winning musical that lends a new twist to the familiar "Sesame Street" formula.

The educational objectives have drifted somewhat from learning how to cross the street and count in Spanish. Focusing on twentysomethings in that awkward phase between college graduation and financially solvent adulthood, the show, which is having its West Coast premiere at the Spreckels Theatre courtesy of the Old Globe, dwells on such advanced concepts as self-acceptance, romantic commitment and (no need to freak out, people) life purpose.

But don't by any means get the impression that the theatrical curriculum is dull or earnest. Performed by a mixed cast of humans and puppets, "Avenue Q" is one of the jauntiest musicals to come around in a long while. The two hours of enjoyment it offers are two hours you won't regret not using more productively to study French, sort boxes in the garage or do any of those other alternative-universe tasks that claw at you when you feel as if your time is being wasted.

This is the third time I've seen "Avenue Q," and each time I've liked it more. By the time it arrives at the Ahmanson Theatre (where it opens Sept. 7), I might very well be an honest-to-goodness fan, even though I'm on record as saying that the steamrollering success of this musical sleeper is overblown. I still think that's the case, but the pleasure "Avenue Q" generously provides should be patented and made available to anyone whose antidepressant has stopped working.

Let's review the history: "The Little Puppet Show That Could," as it's sometimes referred to, not only stole the Tony for best musical out from under "Wicked" (largely considered the favorite) but also has turned out to be a juggernaut at the box office. It was a different story in Vegas, where the show, which controversially precluded a national tour, closed sooner than expected. But with Broadway and West End productions still playing, and the national tour finally underway, it's not as if the producers are crying poverty.

So the show's an instant classic, right? Well, depends on how narrowly you define that.

With an entertaining if evanescent score by Robert Lopez and Jeff Marx, and a jokey comfort-food book by Jeff Whitty, "Avenue Q" doesn't point the way toward a new direction in the American musical. Nor is it even a showcase for our most talented performers.

But it's very cleverly pulled off all the same, and with its tender heart and bawdy sense of humor, there's no point in being a curmudgeon about it. You may not want to eat pizza on a regular basis, but it would be silly to pretend that it doesn't taste great.

The tale begins when Princeton, a preppy Muppet-like creature who's voiced and handled by Robert McClure, arrives on Avenue Q looking for an apartment in an ungentrified (i.e., affordable) part of town. He takes a rather dumpy place that's shown to him by none other than Gary Coleman (Carla Renata), a superintendent in the neighborhood now that his star has fallen from his "Diff'rent Strokes" days.

Princeton isn't exactly thrilled with his prospects, but as he laments, "What do you do with a B.A. in English?" The question gives rise to a very funny aria that articulates the terror every ex-lit major feels after leaving the relative safety of school ("I can't pay the bills yet, 'cause I have no skills yet, the world is a big scary place"). Fortunately for him, he isn't the only person having anxiety attacks on his new block.

The menagerie of angst-ridden characters includes Brian (Cole Porter — yes, that's really the actor's name), a frustrated stand-up comic, and his Japanese fiancée, Christmas Eve (Angela Ai), a struggling therapist who sounds like Margaret Cho imitating her mother. There's a pair of puppet roommates named Nicky and Rod (ably manipulated by Christian Anderson and McClure), who might remind you of Ernie and Bert, except that Rod, the Bert-like character, is having trouble accepting that he's gay. And there's a grouchy, solitary weirdo known as Trekkie Monster (Anderson again, working his puppetry magic), who spends a heck of a lot of time in front of his computer — a mystery that's eventually solved in the raucously hilarious "The Internet Is for Porn" number.

The newfound object of Princeton's affection is Kate Monster (beautifully brought to life by Kelli Sawyer), a kindergarten assistant who, being a monster, is a little sensitive about her background. Their crisis-prone relationship sparks all kinds of necessary lessons, from the inherent difficulty in balancing love and work to the acknowledgement that, as one of the song titles puts it, "Everyone's a Little Bit Racist."

Sawyer, who's utterly captivating in voice and presence, also portrays Kate Monster's rival, Lucy, a lounge singer with loose morals and an eye for Princeton. If he's more than usually vulnerable to her tawdry charms, it's because he's worried that a serious relationship with Kate might dull his ambition and make him lose sight of his "purpose" — a word that floods him with self-torturing fears each time it flashes on two TV monitors hanging on either side of the stage. Plus, Lucy is a shameless temptress, who wants little more from him than an unbridled roll in the hay.

The sexual antics, it should be noted, are rambunctiously pitched to a mature audience. Leave the kids at home so you can laugh at Kate Monster's acrobatics without guilt and enjoy the marvelous expressivity of these puppets, which were conceived and designed by Rick Lyon, whose indebtedness to Jim Henson is lovingly apparent even in the racier bits.

The emotional truth of these plushy characters is reinforced by their human handlers, who manage somehow to be there or not there as the situation requires. Director Jason Moore should be applauded for creating an onstage universe that seamlessly moves between the animate and the inanimate. The cast may not be the most memorable in the show's history, but the sharp staging keeps anyone from dragging down the production's overall level.

Set designer Anna Louizos captures Avenue Q in all its friendly grittiness. You might not want to live here after you turn 30, but you'll fondly remember the camaraderie that helped you through your growing pains.

And that may just be the powerful secret of this little show, which turns the stress and strain of finding one's place in the world into an occasion for unadulterated fun.

charles.mcnulty@latimes.com

*

Avenue Q

Where: Spreckels Theatre, 121 Broadway, San Diego

When: 8 p.m. Tuesdays- through Fridays, 5 and 9 p.m. Saturdays, 2 and 7:30 p.m. Sundays

Ends: Aug. 5

Price: $19- to $85

Contact: (619) 234-5623

Running time: 2 hours, 10 minutes

Also

Where: Ahmanson Theatre, 135 N. Grand Ave., Los Angeles

When: Sept. 7- to Oct. 14

Price: $25- to $90

Contact: (213) 628-2772

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