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The musical Avenue Q is playfully juvenile and surprisingly sweet

The wonderful performances by the actors/puppeteers are a highlight of Avenue Q. PHOTO Credit: Lakewood Playhouse

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There's always been plenty of room for blue humor and bawdiness in musical theater, even if it can sometimes feel like a more squeaky clean environment. Avenue Q is a musical that plays on misconceptions - pitching itself as a sort of children's puppet show crossed with a riff on Rent, with young people aimlessly breaking out in the big city, but with many of the numbers and storylines dipping into the ribald side of things and tackling politically incorrect takes on race, sexual orientation, porn, the merits of loud sex, homelessness, and the joy one feels in seeing others fail. Any novelty that comes with seeing puppets curse quickly loses its surprise, leaving the strength of the musical itself to carry the day

Luckily, Avenue Q, as produced by the Lakewood Playhouse, is largely a delight, with its only real drawbacks resulting from certain jokes and concepts that haven't aged particularly well since the show hit Broadway in 2003. The biggest miss comes in the form of a character called Christmas Eve, a Japanese caricature that might've been subversive in the early part of last decade, but which now comes off as a lazy gag - the same goes for the character of Gary Coleman, who has now been reduced to being an apartment superintendent. As Avenue Q goes along, these iffy jokes mostly go by the wayside, making for a markedly improved show as it progresses

Avenue Q involves a puppet named Princeton (portrayed here by Kyle Sinclair who, like most of the other performers, ends up juggling multiple roles), a 22-year-old just out of college and woefully unprepared for adult life. In this Sesame Street-like world, we are quickly introduced to a colorful series of people and puppets, including the chipper, idealistic Kate Monster (wonderfully played by Taylor Davis), struggling comic Brian (Conner Brown), uptight closet case Rod (also Sinclair), laid-back layabout Nicky (Derek Hall, doing the Ernie to Rod's Bert), struggling therapist Christmas Eve (JasminRae Onggao Lazaroo), Gary Coleman (Tony L. Williams), and the psychedelic Bad Idea Bears (the aforementioned Brown and Kayla Crawford)

This is an incredibly technically accomplished production, with a million moving parts directed by Victoria Webb, music direction from Josh Zimmerman, and stage and assistant stage managing from Jeanette Sanchez-Izenman and Lydia Helt, respectively. The props and set were by Karrie Nevin, lending a "let's put on a show!" charm that really makes the puppet show conceit come to life

Above all, the actors do astonishing work with the puppets - thanks, one assumes, to puppet instruction by Lance Woolen - perfectly embodying their characters and sometimes throwing their voices across the stage when it becomes necessary for another performer to momentarily hold someone else's puppet. It's a tight wire act that soon begins to feel natural, despite all of the winking artifice. What's more impressive is that, despite the paper-thin plot and the mostly juvenile sense of humor, this is a surprisingly sweet show, with more than one unexpectedly emotional song or character moment. Not all of the jokes land, but Avenue Q is buoyed by a goofy exuberance and endearing performances. If those Bad Idea Bears don't make you smile, there might be something wrong with you.

Avenue Q, Lakewood Playhouse, Fridays and Saturdays 8 p.m., Sundays 2 p.m., through July 3, $24-$29, Lakewood Playhouse, 5729 Lakewood Towne Center Blvd., Lakewood, 253.588.0042,

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