Put simply, “Avenue Q” is “ ‘Sesame Street’ for adults.”
The winner of three Tony Awards, “Avenue Q” features furry puppets cursing, complaining and singing songs like “Everyone’s a Little Bit Racist” and “The Internet Is for Porn.” There’s even a simulated puppet sex scene, set to the tune “You Can Be as Loud as the Hell You Want (When You’re Makin’ Love).”
“It’s not meant to be shocking,” star Cody Pettit said of the Kelrik Productions show, which starts Friday at Unity of San Luis Obispo. “Behind every ridiculous, crass adult message is actually a lot of heart.”
Although Kelrik Productions has traditionally focused on family- friendly shows, artistic director Erik Austin said it’s time for the company to reach out to new audiences.
“I was getting a little stagnant just doing the same shows,” Austin said, noting that past productions “Grease,” “Pinkalicious” and Willy Wonka: The Musical” are returning this year. “There are still a million more to choose from (but) I feel like we’ve done a huge majority of them.”
By branching out to include adult-oriented productions, such as “Cabaret” and “Rent,” “I’m hoping we’ll bring in a completely different clientele,” Austin said.
The first entry in the new Kelrik After Dark series is “Avenue Q,” the irreverent musical that has been keeping audiences in stitches since it opened off-Broadway in 2003. The show, which features music and lyrics by Robert Lopez and Jeff Marx and a book by Jeff Whitty, ended its Broadway run in September 2009.
“Avenue Q” follows the comic misadventures of Princeton (Pettit), an idealistic college graduate who moves into an apartment building on the title street. There, he encounters a number of colorful characters — including struggling schoolteacher Kate Monster (Adrianna Leiby), porn-obsessed nerd Trekkie Monster (Lester Wilson), aspiring comedian Brian (Jeremy Ryan) and his therapist fiancée, Christmas Eve (Danielle Mendoza)— who help him discover his purpose in life.
Michael Rogers plays Rod, a Republican investment banker who has a secret crush on his roommate, Nicky (Mark Rohner).
“Throughout the story, he’s struggling to come to terms with the fact that he is gay,” explained Rogers, who also serves as director of puppetry.
The rest of the cast includes Kelly Barrett and Red Abdul Rahim as the Bad Idea Bears, Veronica Surber as skanky chanteuse Lucy, Taylor Peters as bossy Mrs. T and Nicki Barnes as building superintendent Gary Coleman. (Yes, that Gary Coleman.)
“As the audience, you can sit back and watch this show and fall in love with every character onstage,” Rogers said.
That’s impressive, considering that all but three of the characters are played by puppets.
According to Pettit, operating the fur-and-felt folks requires crack timing, technical skill and physical stamina. Sore shoulders and wrists are a common complaint.
“When you have a puppet and you’re tying to imbue it with life, everything becomes instantly more complicated,” he said, such as conveying emotions with flapping mouths and unblinking eyes.
Puppets and their operators must act, move and sing in tandem.
“Our goal (is that) when people see the show, they’re going to be watching the puppets, not us,” Pettit said.
While the puppets of “Avenue Q” may evoke memories of “The Muppet Show,” the satirical subject matter belongs to the 21st century.
Musical numbers include the short-and-silly “I’m Not Wearing Underwear Today,” the cheery ragtime tune “If You Were Gay” and the bittersweet ballad “I Wish I Could Go Back to College.”
“The harmonies in that song are so gorgeous,” Rogers said.
“It’s really written to teach hard life lessons that you learn as an adult,” Pettit said of “Avenue Q.” “There’s a lot of intelligence and heart behind it. Erik’s done a great job of bringing that out.”
Because of the show’s mature content, parents and guardians must accompany audience members under the age of 17.
That will also be the case later this year, when the Kelrik After Dark series continues.
“The Rocky Horror Show,” which runs March 30 through April 14, follows a young couple who stumble upon a castle inhabited by mad scientist Frank-N-Furter. It’s based on the long-running British musical that inspired the cult movie “The Rocky Horror Picture Show.”
Running May 18 through June 2 is “They’re Playing Our Song,” a disco-era musical inspired by the real-life relationship between composer Marvin Hamlisch and lyricist Carole Bayer Singer.
According to Rogers, “Avenue Q” and its fellow productions will challenge the public perception of Kelrik Productions.
“It pushes the envelope in a good way,” he said.