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School for monsters 

We've all heard enough about tough love for the phrase to earn a trademark. What Avenue Q offers us, in toxic profusion, is loving toughness. Contrary to the blithe reassurances of Madison Avenue and Sesame Street, the world isn't a simply wonderful place where we'll experience success if we come equipped with the proper education.

No, as the musical informed us with exquisite, richly-deserved condescension as it slammed into Charlotte last week, the world is a cruel place that eats scholars with liberal arts educations alive -- most especially English majors like our protagonist Princeton. Your cherished career track leads straight over the edge of a cliff into a polluted ocean.

Sure, the world sucks. But don't worry: we do, too! The little monsters who were babysat by Captain Kangaroo and Mister Rogers have grown up to be big monsters.

Cutting through the crap can be refreshing, and the fact that Avenue Q's toxic condescension is delivered by Sesame Street hand puppets kindly softens the blow while mercilessly steeling the truth. With the same melody line that carried the confirmation of "It Sucks to Be Me" at the beginning of the evening, we're offered the lame reassurance at the end that all our trials, disappointments and disillusionments are only "For Now."

Princeton is still struggling to find his purpose as the curtain falls. Write a musical that teaches everyone the bitter lessons he has learned? The bitter, jaded New Yorkers sneer it down -- a perfect putdown of the Gotham mindset.

After seeing the original Broadway production late in 2003, I found watching how it played in Charlotte today a wicked delight. A dad in the row in front of us spent a good portion of Act 1 with his right hand parked in front of his daughter's eyes. He'd need two more hands to cover her ears if he had any hopes of protecting her from the onslaught of Robert Lopez-Jeff Marx jingles that included "Everyone's a Little Bit Racist" and "The Internet Is for Porn" before we even reached the copulating puppets of "You Can Be as Loud as the Hell You Want (When You're Making Love)."

I don't know how he did it, but Dad planted an older substitute kid beside him for Act 2.

Princeton's landlord, as he spasmodically woos Kate Monster, is none other than Gary Coleman. Is there a better icon for how despised, replaceable and disposable our mindless, exploited citizenry has become in America? Gary takes it all in with a shit-eating smile. The masses who are so easily diverted, like Trekkie Monster, are even worse than the fallen celebrity in Jeff Whitty's devastating script. Don't expect a U-turn for the USA when the mantra of "grab your dick and doubleclick" continues to make inroads.

After sojourning in Vegas before hitting the road, the touring Q seems sassier and a tad glitzier now than the original Broadway version. But what really surprised and floored me was the spectacle of a Charlotte audience surprising itself. Among the litany of woes ticked off in "(Only) For Now," the name of George Bush was mischievously dropped in -- and Belk Theater erupted in a spontaneous cheer at the sound of it.

Yes, that happened in Charlotte, N.C. I was shocked that our homespun president's mass appeal had sunk so low that a Charlotte audience would cheer the impending end of his term. Those who cheered may have been shocked by the undeniable unanimity, too.

What may also have surprised the audience was their gut feeling that, after the sensational road production of Wicked earlier in the Broadway Lights season, Avenue Q was not an anticlimax. Cast, music and production all attained the same lofty level.

The thrust was even keener. Enriched by the fruits of pornography, Trekkie Monster was able to bankroll Kate Monster's radiant dream of a school for monsters. We, the people who elected President W, were the ones being schooled at Whitty's "Monstersorri."

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