July 22, 2010 at 2:25 pm EST | by David J. Hoffman
Sesame Street meets South Park

Puppets have full-on puppet sex. Racism and pornography and unemployment are also addressed head-on. Hilarity and irreverence ensue.

But somewhere Kermie is having a panic attack at the arrival of “Avenue Q,” set on a street with a string of tenements in a low-rent, outer-outer borough of New York City.

It is sufficiently reminiscent of Sesame Street, on public TV since 1969 and beloved by Generation Y for its politically correct multi-cultural neighborhood and ethnically diverse families, to merit the following statement in the playbill: “Avenue Q has not been authorized or approved in any manner by the Jim Henson Company or Sesame Workshop, which have no responsibility for its content.”

Even so, the show is basically an homage to the creators of Sesame Street. It plays at the Shakespeare Theatre Company’s Lansburgh Theatre until Aug. 15, and is a first-rate, road-show version of the original, innovative, foul-language Broadway musical that in 2004 won the Best Musical Tony Award, snatching it from the hands of “Wicked.”

As for “Q” standing for “Queer,” get over it. It’s really just not that big a deal. However, Bert and Ernie (whoops, I mean Rod and Nicky in this show) are gay, or at least ready to come out, but only after first swearing they’re not, as they sing the duet “If You Were Gay,” while insisting, a la Seinfeld, “not that there’s anything wrong with that.” And hey, no one else in the cast, including Trekkie Monster, a porn-obsessed Muppettish furball facsimile of the Cookie Monster, cares one way or the other.

Remember, most of these characters are puppets, designed by the ingenious Rick Lyon, who created the role of Trekkie Monster (“Me want porn!”) in the original Broadway production but who is also a puppeteer and designer with more than 25 years experience in theater, film and TV, including “Sesame Street.” He and his company, The Lyon Puppets, build all the puppets, which cost up to $10,000 each and are so-called single-rod, double-rod and live-hands puppets depending on how the head and arms are animated by the actor serving as puppeteer who also generally supplies the voice. The folks remain in full view of the audience and make no attempt to conceal themselves or their lip movements. The puppets interact with each other and three human characters.

The Trekkie Monster is now “acted” by Michael Liscio, Jr., who also plays Nicky, but does an especially bravura job bringing out the reclusive porn-lover’s gruff charm. As for Nicky, he is a sweet but messy and jobless character living with Rod, a closeted Republican investment banker (acted by Brent Michael DiRoma, making his touring debut on “Avenue Q”).

As for the show’s gay subtext, Rod likes nothing more than sitting home leafing through his favorite book, “Broadway Musicals of the 1940s.” One night a sleepless Rod thinks he hears Nicky say, “I love you, Rod,” in his sleep and is jubilant that his secret crush on the slacker is requited. However, it turns out that it’s actually Rod who is dreaming all this, and Rod later angrily denies that he is gay, insisting that he has a girlfriend named Alberta who lives in Vancouver, but no one has ever seen his “beard” and he sometimes mixes up her name.

Other story lines are woven into “Avenue Q,” including parables about coming-of-age and finding “purpose” in life.

“Avenue Q” began off-Broadway in 2003 and moved to Broadway later that year and by now has spawned an entire industry. The show was conceived by Robert Lopez and Jeff Marx, who also wrote the music and lyrics with the book written by Jeff Whitty.

Lopez is now working on a new stage musical written with the creators of “South Park” and Whitty is collaborating with Jason Moore (the show’s New York and London and national tour director) on a musical version of Armistead Maupin’s tale of gay sex in the city, “Tales of the City: The Musical.”

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