Imagine what might happen if puppet characters like those you or your kids grew up watching on Sesame Street started singing songs and teaching life lessons about adult topics, things like sexual orientation, racism, Internet porn, and Schadenfreude (that’s German for people taking pleasure in your pain).

Well, that is precisely what Robert Lopez, Jeff Marx, and Jeff Whitty did in their 2003 off-Broadway-to-Broadway (and back-to-off-Broadway) smash hit musical Avenue Q.

Actors’ Repertory Theatre Of Simi now recreates all the magic of the New York original, artfully scaled down from the John Golden Theater’s 804 seats to the Simi Valley Performing Arts Center’s far more intimate 220.

“Sesame Street For Adults” is just one way to sum up this ingenious blend of fuzzy-faced puppets, live human actors, melodious songs, and “instructional” video segments brought together in a thoroughly entertaining coming-of-age story chili-peppered with R-rated language and at least one scene of puppet-on-puppet sex.

Whitty’s Tony-winning book first introduces us to a dapper young chap named Princeton (Nathaniel Timmerman, manipulating a Jim Hensonesque hand puppet as do all but three of the show’s actors), freshly graduated with a B.A. in English and no idea what to do with his life after “four years of college and plenty of knowledge have earned me this useless degree.”

Fortunately for Princeton, his apartment hunting has led him from Avenue A to the far more affordable Avenue Q and a promising “For Rent” sign in a building supered by none other than TV’s Gary Coleman (Regan Carrington) and peopled by roommates Rod (Timmerman playing an additional role as do several other cast members) and Nicky (Kevin Ellis), live-in lovers Brian (David Daniels) and Christmas Eve (Nicole Santiago-Barredo), sweet young thing Kate Monster (Danielle Judovits), and upstairs grouch Trekkie Monster (Ellis)—all of the above vying for suckiest life in “It Sucks To Be Me.”

Brian’s been laid off, his dreams of becoming a famous late-night TV comedian put on indefinite hold, and as for Kate Monster, despite having a love of music and art (along with a gigantic heart), the furry young thing can’t help asking herself the age-old question “Why don’t I have a boyfriend?” and answering it with “Fuck! It sucks to be me!” Nicky complains about Rod’s anal-compulsive need to iron his underwear as the latter gripes about finding Nicky’s clothes strewn everywhere, making “that very small apartment we share a hell.” Japanese-born therapist Christmas Eve has two Master’s Degrees in social work (but no clients), an unemployed fiancé, and way too many bills to pay. As for Gary Coleman, well how would you like to make a ton of money that gets stolen by your folks and then have to suffer one stranger after another stopping to ask you, “What you talkin’ ‘bout Willis?”

In song after tuneful, clever song (music and lyrics by Lopez and Marx), we get to know these self-proclaimed losers-in-life up close and personal. Nicky (and just about everyone else on the avenue) is convinced that uptight Republican Rod is a repressed closet case, and won’t he just do them all a favor and come out? Kate is almost immediately smitten by new-kid-in-town Princeton, particularly when he makes her “A Mix Tape.” Meanwhile, Christmas Eve nags hubby Brian in an accent so sing-song that it would be offensive in any show other than Avenue Q, whose characters celebrate in song that “Everyone’s A Little Bit Racist,” or as Christmas Eve puts it, “a rittle bit lacest.”

Not much “happens” plot-wise in Avenue Q, though a night on the town does introduce the gang to cabaret skank Lucy The Slut (Judovits), much to Kate Monster’s dismay and Princeton’s temporary delight, Princeton and Lucy’s one-nighter leading to so some major life changes in Act Two.

Mostly, Avenue Q unfolds as a series of humorous life lessons taught and learned in song, à la Sesame Street, though with considerably saltier language and themes, ditties with titles like “The Internet Is For Porn,” “You Can Be As Loud As The Hell You Want (When You’re Makin’ Love),” and “Schadenfreude,” German for “watching a vegetarian being told she just ate chicken, or watching a frat boy realize just what he put his dick in!”

Director Sean P. Harrington clearly knows his Avenue Q from A to Z, staging this mid-sized production with imagination and pizzazz, aided and abetted by a cast who more than hold their own against their illustrious Broadway predecessors.

A recent Orange County production of Avenue Q assigned one puppet character per actor, with each duo outfitted in complementary costumes. Harrington and company stick with the original New York concept of having several of the all-in-black-clad actor/puppeteers play two or even three puppet characters each, the better to distinguish between puppet and human characters. Timmerman, for example, voices and manipulates both Princeton and Rod, puppets which occasionally get manipulated by one of the production’s two “puppet swings” (Tara Alkazian and Daniel Barredo) in order to allow both Princeton and Rod to be onstage at the same time, with Timmerman continuing to voice both. Carrington, Daniels, and Santiago-Barredo, on the other hand, are Gary, Brian, and Christmas Eve and are costumed as the characters they play. Got that?

The performances on the Simi Valley stage could hardly be better, beginning with lanky boy-next-door Timmerman, terrific as both flamboyant Rod and laid-back Princeton. Judovits’ day job voicing cartoon characters makes her an ideal choice to create the oh-so-different Kate and Lucy (think Sandra Bullock and Megan Fox), and wow can this gal sing. Ellis gets the prime assignment of bringing to life both warm-hearted Nicky and big blustery Trekkie Monster, aka the porn addict who lives upstairs, and plays both with oodles of panache. In addition, Ellis and Jamie Whittington Studer (fresh from her triumph as Hairspray’s Tracy Turnblad) have great fun being foul-mouthed and cuddly as the Bad Idea Bears, and Studer gets a wacky cameo as snooty kindergarten teacher/puppet Mrs. Thistletwat. Human characters are brought to vivid life by the dynamic trio of Carrington as a brash and peppy Gary C., Daniels as slacker-next-door Brian, and Santiago-Barredo, having a ball confusing l’s and r’s as wise-cracking Christmas Eve. The multitasking Alkazian and Barredo complete the sensational cast, the entire gang of nine deserving major kudos for becoming adept puppeteers in record time.

Director Harrington gets plenty of bonus points for his fabulous production design, including a dozen or so original puppets* that capture the look of the Broadway originals with fresh new facial features, skin colors, and hair designs for each. (I particularly loved Trekkie Monster’s midnight black-and-blue, Nicky’s matching green face and hair, and a hairy Kate you can really believe is of the Monster race.) Harrington’s two story brownstone neighborhood set looks terrific, especially as lit with flair by lighting designer John Grant.  Another big round of applause goes too to Harrington for giving each puppet his or her own character-appropriate garb, and in most cases, at least one change of outfits for each.

The human costumes are great too, designed by Jan Glasband and Genevieve Levin, with a special tip of the hat for Levin’s and Daniel Mahler’s Christmas Eve wedding dress.

Musical director Matthew Park has the entire cast singing and harmonizing quite tunefully indeed, backed by a highly professional live nine-piece orchestra—Park on piano, Ronn Munn, Mike Munson, and Janet Stuhr on reeds, Keith Murphy on guitar, Art Gibson and Brenda Smith on bass, Lucas Miller on drums, and Jodie Morse on percussion.

Kevin Kahm is technical director, Kimberly Kiley stage manager, and Brenda Goldstein RSM/assistant stage manager. Avenue Q is produced for Actors’ Repertory of Simi by Glasband.

Parents of younger kids are hereby forewarned. Avenue Q gets an R-rating for raunch, so leave preteens at home with the babysitter and some age-appropriate DVDs. Anyone offended by the F-word and/or puppet sex should probably opt for the nearest Rodgers And Hammerstein musical. Everyone else is enthusiastically encouraged to head on up to the Simi Valley Performing Arts Center for some wild and Quazy musical theater frolic and fun.

*use by special permission of I STAGE Repertory

Simi Valley Cultural Arts Center, 3050 Los Angeles Ave., Simi Valley.

–Steven Stanley
February 25, 2012

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