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Arts: Who you callin' a muppet? 

Avenue Q serves a seedy Sesame Street send-up

You can be sure you're living in Dystopia when the girl next door is named Kate Monster. That's what happens when Princeton — a wide-eyed, idealistic Ivy Leaguer totally unprepared for modern urban life — settles into his walk-up on Avenue Q in an outerborough of New York. The insanely cynical send-up of Sesame Street invades Belk Theater for an eight-performance run, July 22-27.

Nothing like this musical has ever been seen at the Queen City's PAC. Jim Henson and his Sesame Workshop emphatically disapprove of Q's lusty desecration of the wholesome Muppet universe. Broadway Lights Series subscribers who renew by reflex will no doubt be shocked when they discover a playlist that includes "You Can Be as Loud as the Hell You Want (When You're Makin' Love)" and "The Internet Is for Porn."

Aghast? Maybe not.

Erica Robinson has been a swing performer with Avenue Q since last June, mostly behind the scenes as one of three invisible puppeteers but occasionally in the spotlight as Gary Coleman -- a former TV celeb turned slumlord. She has seen how Q sits with audiences from Boston to L.A. and from Tampa to Columbus.

"It surprises us," Robinson reports. "Like when we were in Des Moines, Iowa, we didn't think that they would love it at all. Or Houston, Texas, we didn't think that they would like it. But those audiences were some of the most supportive and fun-loving audiences we've had."

After the predictable chemistry with Kate Monster, our overeducated Princeton encounters two other neighbors who put the "queer" into Avenue Q. But aside from Coleman -- originally played by a white woman in the workshop production, Robinson tells us -- the urban odyssey also includes a mixed-race engaged couple, a subtle vamp named Lucy Slut and the reclusive Trekkie Monster.

Potty-mouthed just begins to describe the rollicking foulness of Avenue Q. Jeff Whitty's script, abetted by the music and lyrics of Robert Lopez and Jeff Marx, doesn't merely push the envelope of political correctness. It gleefully shreds that envelope and stomps on it for good measure.

Unwary audience members can be in for a rough ride -- if they choose to stay. Defections can begin early, according to Robinson.

"The gasps kind of die down after the first number," she says, "because you know what you're getting into."

So is Trekkie Monster's gruff "The Internet Is for Porn" the last last straw for prudes and the hyper-devout?

"Absolutely not," Robinson insists. "I think 'Everybody's a Little Bit Racist' is the point where we're like, 'OK, if you've stayed with us this long -- if you can stay past this song -- you're good.' You can stay for the rest of the show."

Sadly, you might discover that you might be a little racist if you're not enthusiastic about kindergarten assistant Kate's dream to establish a school for monsters. More than a couple of uncomfortable truths are packaged in this broadly condescending primer to cosmopolitan adulthood.

Princeton, with a bachelor's degree in English, is classically unequipped for success in love or life. So he fits in perfectly on Avenue Q -- as we learn in the rhapsodic poetry of "It Sucks to Be Me," a wild group-sing where everyone makes a pitch on why his or her life sucks the most.

Insane humor and our empathy for these Gen X'ers keeps us captivated. That's what hooked Robinson on the show and motivated her to audition for the Gary Coleman role.

"The show was on Broadway for three years before I even saw it," Robinson recalls. "I was like, 'I don't want to see a puppet show. It's not going to be funny.' Then when I went to see it, I was amazed at how real and authentic it was, and I totally forgot that there were puppets onstage. That's our job: to make sure the puppets come to life, so that you can focus on the actual show and what we're talking about. Everything relates to what we as adults go through. People get into it."

But not necessarily to the point of tears, like Robinson's first visit to Avenue Q. Such deathless classics as "I'm Not Wearing Underwear Today" and "There is Life Outside Your Apartment" could lift your spirits and help you forget Princeton's agonizing struggle to find a purpose.

If those don't work, there's always "Schadenfreude." Don't know what that means? Avenue Q will gaily instruct.

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