Puppet Regime

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CAROL ROSEGG

FELT GOOD: Stephanie D'Abruzzo plays Kate

What if the denizens of Sesame Street grew up into profane, broke, self-doubting college grads who kept some of their innocence but developed potty mouths? That's the premise of Avenue Q, the hip new musical comedy starring puppets (yep, that's puppets and hip in the same sentence) that opened last week on Broadway.

The brainchild of songwriters Robert Lopez and Jeff Marx, Avenue Q is the kind of place where the word of the day is schadenfreude and five nightstands rearrange themselves into a "one-night stand." Instead of spelling bees and ABCs, the characters, including Princeton, an earnest, clean-cut college grad, and his sometime girlfriend Kate Monster, a kindergarten aide, confront such grownup issues as unemployment, sex and the rent.

There's Cookie Monster's alter ego, Trekkie Monster, who is addicted to Internet porn, and a pair of sexualized Ernie and Bert characters, Nicky and Rod, who room together but don't sleep together, much to Rod's dismay. On shabby, outer-borough Avenue Q, they sing jaunty little songs about racism (Everyone's a Little Bit Racist) and depression (There Is Life Outside Your Apartment) while falling in love, getting evicted and coming out.

Onstage the puppeteers are visible, but their puppets get away with behavior for which humans would be sent to their rooms. Amid it all, the characters grow up and move on. Puppet-on-puppet action is quite a sight, but the show's real charm is that unlike its main characters, it has a heart.