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Avenue Q from Stage Door Delights

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The set-up:

Sassy, sweet, naive and highly-opinionated hand puppets populate Avenue Q, and bring with them music, songs, inspirational messages and dollops of charm, making it easy to see why this unorthodox show won Tonys in 2004 for Best Musical, Best Book and Best Score.

The execution:

There are three humans onstage and nine hand puppets (and their puppeteers), and they interact without explanation - none is needed, for the puppets very quickly become human. The plot is even more timely than at its premiere nine years ago, as it explores the difficulties a college grad with a BA in English (puppet Princeton, portrayed by Colton Wright) has in finding a job, finding love, and finding himself - the perennial problems of young adults. There are several love stories at work here - two of the humans are in love, Bryan (Justin Nicholson) and his Asian fiancée Christmas Eve (Gretchen Odum), and we see their happiness. The third human is television star Gary Coleman (Alex Musgrove), reduced to sweeping streets (don't ask).

Puppet Princeton has the financial shorts and lands in low-rent Avenue Q, where he meets puppet Kate Monster (Leslie Sharp) and his initial shyness is overcome with Long Island Iced Tea, leading to an extended puppet bedding sequence which is the most hilarious theatrical moment likely to be seen for many a moon. The third love affair is puppet Rod (Tad Howington), deep in the closet, but even he ultimately finds, if not love, at least sexual satisfaction, this time offstage, helped by his straight friend puppet Nicky (Michael Houghton). Puppet Lucy the Slut (Erica Smith) adds glamour, and puppet Trekkie (Travis Hamilton) spends his time indoors addicted to porn.

The action is non-stop, and there's a lot to watch on the colorful set of neighborhood front-door stoops. The illusion that the puppets change expression is created with huge mouths that open wide (very wide), despite button-eyes and fabric faces, and the black-clad puppeteers act as well as speak, so that the double-image adds depth to characterization. All the actor/puppeteers, and the human actors, are excellent. Much of the evening is conveyed as well in vivid sign language by the very gifted Rebeccah Bauerlein, so that one has a choice of riches to view.

The enjoyable songs range from the simplistic "I'm Not Wearing Underwear Today" to the unexpected "Schadenfreude," a subtle exploration of our joy at another's misfortune. Avenue Q's essential message is to stop judging and give humans a break, and this, while straightforward, is neither heavy-handed nor belabored, for the real message is the joy of life, with all its difficulties, presented with such wit and good humor that we are captivated by it.

The music and lyrics of this long-running Bway hit are Robert Lopez and Jeff Marx, and the book is by Jeff Whitty. The direction by Stage Door's executive director Marc Anthony Glover keeps the narrative flowing and the energy alive - Avenue Q can be added to his list of recent triumphs. When the curtain dropped, there was a chorus of sighs, and audible awwws, for the audience had made friends and come to admire and even love the polyglot denizens of Avenue Q , and was sorry to part from them.

The verdict:

Delighting in myriad ways, some quite unexpected, Avenue Q is a rich theatrical experience, filled with good-natured humor and enjoyable songs. It's an event to be savored - don't miss it!

Avenue Q continues through February 5 at Stage Door, Inc., 284 Pasadena Town Square Mall, Pasadena. For tickets or information, call 832-582-7606 or visit www.stagedoorinc.com.

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