Don't be thrown off by the "Sesame Street"-style puppets in the musical "Avenue Q" coming next week to the Gallo Center for the Arts.
This racy comedy is geared toward a mature crowd — expect four-letter words, frank talk and full-puppet nudity. Work Light Productions, which is presenting the touring production, recommends that audience members be at least 13.
"We've only had a couple of instances where people brought their kids and they walk out," said Jaqueline Grabois, who plays Kate Monster, Lucy the Slut and other characters. "We definitely have an awesome following. It's like a rock show every night. The majority of the audience hoot and holler."
Created by Robert Lopez, Jeff Marx (music and lyrics) and Jeff Whitty (book), the 2004 Tony Award-winning Broadway hit tells the story of Princeton, a new college graduate who moves to New York City way out in the cheap neighborhood on Avenue Q. Searching for a stable job, a good relationship and a life purpose, he befriends an eclectic assortment of puppets and humans.
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The songs include "What Do You Do With a BA in English?" and "I Wish I Could Go Back to College."
Grabois said she learned to manipulate the puppets at an intensive puppet camp during the audition process. She and the other performers worked six hours a day for two days practicing where to hold their hands and how to look in the puppets' eyes.
Hopeful that she was going to get the part, she went to toy company FAO Schwarz and built her own puppet, named Sassy Sally, so she could practice more in her free time. It was harder work than she expected.
"It's definitely a muscle that you have to build to make Kate Monster stand up straight and to be attentive," Grabois said. "In the beginning, it was difficult to hold my arm up for a long period of time."
After she was hired for the show, she and the other cast members got coaching from Aymee Garcia, who was in the original Broadway production.
Maintenance of the puppets falls to a crew member, who repairs them when eyeballs come out, eyebrows fall off and hair needs to get primped and curled.
Grabois said that while she had always enjoyed puppets, she never thought about the people behind them until now.
"Now I think about it all the time," she said. "I see puppets everywhere and I think, ooh, job opportunity."
While "Avenue Q" was originally targeted at people in their 20s and 30s, it's now drawing a wide age range, Grabois said. At a recent tour stop, a couple in their 70s said it was one of their favorite shows. Some people see the show again and again and can sing along with the songs.
"It has a cult following," Grabois said.