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'Avenue Q' makes puppetry fun for adults

The good citizens of Colorado Springs can rest easy. They’ve been spared the public spectacle of puppet cleavage.

The national tour of “Avenue Q” managed to spark controversy with news that the production, which played in Colorado Springs last week, couldn’t display a provocative outdoor billboard featuring the character Lucy the Slut.

That’s the same production traveling to Fresno to perform Tuesday and Wednesday at the Saroyan Theatre.

The offending image, which was rejected by the local Colorado Springs billboard company, is a completely gratuitous, chest-centric close-up shot of Lucy from the neck down. She’s wearing a bright-blue low-cut blouse that, while strategically covering her, um, essential bits, is rather grandiose in showing off her ample hot-pink, foam-rubber bosom.

Oh, the shock. The prurience. The gender objectification. The potential for scarring the minds of young puppets everywhere.

Hey, that’s what you get with “Avenue Q.”

When the musical first took Broadway by storm in 2003, presenters grappled with a common problem: People saw that it featured human characters alongside cute, cuddly puppets that beared a marked resemblance to the cast of “Sesame Street” and figured it was a family-friendly outing to which they could drag their small children.

Nope.

Word has gotten around over the years that “Avenue Q,” which follows the adventures of a group of struggling New Yorkers ranging from a wide-eyed recent college grad to Gary Coleman (yes, that Gary Coleman), is actually geared toward adults. (The official parental advisory notes that the show includes “adult humor and language, comic vulgarities, sexual content, and full puppet nudity.”)

The hilarity — and underlying satirical genius — of “Avenue Q” isn’t just in its over-the-top smut, however. When it debuted, the show (with music and lyrics by Robert Lopez and Jeff Marx and book by Jeff Whitty) brilliantly skewed many of the deadly serious hot-button issues of the early 2000s: multiculturalism, racism, being gay, political correctness, corporate greed and, of course, Internet porn. (One of the show’s most endearing puppet characters, Trekkie Monster, sings the show-stopper “The Internet Is for Porn.”)

Eight years later, the show hasn’t lost its topical punch. (Especially now that it’s touring to places like Fresno.) But neither has it lost another quality that endeared the show to audiences: its warmth and charm. “Avenue Q” manages to both mock the childlike sticky-sweetness of “Sesame Street” and at the same time embrace more than a sliver of that classic TV program’s sense of community.

One of my favorite songs in the show is the plaintive “Fantasies Come True” — which is about the age-old theme of unrequited love, not randy puppets.

Speaking of those puppets — Fresno might not get the full Lucy the Slut billboard treatment, but she’ll be there in all her full-figured glory on stage.

The funny thing about the recent Colorado Springs story on the banned billboard is that the show’s promoters didn’t even try to use that image in Fresno — except in an online ad posted on the Fresno City College newspaper Web site.

What did we get instead? A shot at River Park of the show’s most conservative character, Rod, an underwear-ironing, closeted gay Republican whose favorite book is “Broadway Musicals of the 1940s.”Do these folks know their market or what?

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