Can there be such a word as "midphoria?" If so, that's where the naughty-but-nice "Avenue Q" leaves us after an evening of wry, witty pleasure.
Protagonists in the musical genre more often tell us "June is Bustin' Out All Over" or "I Could Have Danced All Night." In "Avenue Q," unemployment is bustin' out all over New York City, and the only thing characters do all night is an activity that can't be specified in a family newspaper.
This musical begins with a lament titled "It Sucks to Be Me" and ends with "For Now," which contains the reassuring lines "Life may be scary/But it's only temporary." Yet the overall audience mood is joyful: These kvetching New Yorkers are endearing, like the characters Woody Allen wrote when he still had a sense of humor.
Three of the leads are humans: Japanese social worker Christmas Eve (Lisa Helmi Johanson), ne'er-do-well fiancé Brian (Tim Kornblum) and building superintendent Gary Coleman (Anita Welch), the sassy ex-child star of "Diff'rent Strokes." (Coleman, who died last year, was alive when the show hit Broadway in 2003.)
The others are hand-and-rod puppets operated so convincingly by actors that, on first viewing, we seem to hear human voices issuing from cloth lips. This was my second go-round, so I concentrated on puppeteer's faces; they were animated but not cartoonish. (We can appreciate production details better in Knight Theater than the bigger Belk, where "Avenue Q" played on its first trip to Charlotte.)
All the manipulators do double duty: David Colston Corris deftly handles naïve college graduate Princeton and closeted gay investment banker Rod, while Michael Liscio Jr. sings sweetly as clueless mooch Nicky and growls as porn-obsessed Trekkie Monster. Ashley Eileen Bucknam sings winsomely as Kate Monster, and seductively as Lucy the Slut, a night club belter (sometimes in the same scene). Kerri Brackin does stalwart service in many a supporting role, as do four unseen puppeteers.
The show comes off as an anti-"Sesame Street," the Hensonian fantasy world where all kids are special. That's why we have Trekkie Monster, who seems like Cookie Monster with a less charming fixation.
The point of "Avenue Q" is that we are not unique or extraordinary: We're all a little bit racist, perennially confused and - as the song "Schadenfreude" points out - capable of feeling better when others fail or endure humiliation. (That's the basis of most reality TV.)
These cynically funny lessons are imparted with infectious good nature, so we tap our feet to songs that point out our own shortcomings. Such messages seem more tolerable when they come from non-threatening, goofy-looking creatures of fabric and wood. And the human actors always speak to the puppets, not the puppeteers, so these puppets seem real and unreal at once.
When "Avenue Q" snatched the 2004 Tony for best musical away from "Wicked," most people were surprised that a show with a much smaller cast, budget and audience should take the top prize. But at a remove of seven years, that judgment seems valid: "Wicked" has spectacle on its side, but "Avenue Q" has more soul.