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Sierra Wells, left, and Eric Solis, operate Trekkie Monster in Oregon Cabaret's production of "Avenue Q." Photo by Christopher Briscoe.

Theater review: It’s worth finding your way to ‘Avenue Q’

You may know how to get to Sesame Street, but you’re advised to ditch that particular celebrity bus tour, grab a gypsy cab to an “outer-outer borough” of New York City, and join the denizens of “Avenue Q” instead. Your adventuresome spirit will be well-rewarded for doing so.

“Avenue Q” is a ragingly irreverent take on a particularly joyous kind of big-city shenanigans, so hallucinogenic in its urban avidity that the stars of the show — a variety of muppet-like rod and hand puppets with a proclivity for hot sex, raunchy language and ribald, booze-fueled mischief — have won the hearts and minds of millions of theater-goers since debuting off-Broadway some 15 years ago. Since then, it has been produced and reproduced on Broadway, the Vegas Strip, and in London’s West End, as well as in 20-odd countries, most recently in South Africa. Multiple Tony awards and a Grammy later, the fur-fueled festivities have rolled into Ashland and tumbled onto the stage at the Oregon Cabaret Theatre under the rather brilliant baton of director Galloway Stevens.

Squares will say that this production isn’t for kids, but I’d disagree. Perhaps when it was first thrust into the public imagination some decade and a half ago, this deranged metropolitan musical was on the far side of an R-Rating, but for today’s teenager, it’s saucy enough to be titillating, but not so risque as to cause ongoing impure thoughts. If your 16-year-old can handle Rocky Horror, they can handle this — likability and good humor throughout the show supplant any risk of real perversity.

That disclaimer aside, it’s not exactly “Annie.”

Ribald sing-alongs by giant green googly-eyed monsters about the wonders of internet pornography give way to marginally disturbing scenes of human-on-monster bone-a-thons and a particularly sweet and hilarious scenario wherein a closeted gay marotte longs for the touch of his benevolently heterosexual bright orange roommate. The two happily share a bed, like a metasexual Bert and Ernie. It’s a rare thing to attend a show where wide-eyed ingenues sing about their right to be as loud as they want when jamming the clam, and a pair of sanguine furballs known as the “Bad Idea Bears” appear at regular intervals to encourage such inadvisable life choices as getting a third Long Island Ice Tea, sleeping with hookers, or committing suicide as viable solutions to minor life problems.

There are songs about schadenfreude and racism, and everyone seems quite at home when a grown man sings joyous songs in the street about not wearing any undergarments.

The slightly off-center eroticism of the piece is anchored in the fact that each of the puppets has a hand or two up their back end at all times — manipulated and voiced throughout the show by a group of exceptionally talented artists. Unsatisfied with mere triple-threat actors, who are pretty common at OCT these days, Stevens has cast performers Maggie Randolph, Jack O’Brien, Eric Solis and Sierra Wells — all are quadruple threats. They are the life blood of the show, dancing, acting, singing and puppeteering their way to an absolutely fabulous performance.

As far as the humans in the show, Alex Boyles, a longtime regional actor, shows wonderful comic timing and terrific acting in his role as Brian, a local man who is at a crossroads in life, working as a “consultant” while partnered to Christmas Eve, a Japanese immigrant with two master’s degrees and an iron fist, played with gusto by Catherine Landetta. The other human role in the production is that of Gary Coleman — a bizarre but hilarious scenario in which the notoriously difficult Mr. Coleman was slated to play himself in the show, but failed to come through and ended up suing instead. As a result, actors are cast in the role of Gary Coleman, who has fallen mightily from his days as a child star and is now working as a superintendent on Avenue Q. Coleman is played by Asha Brownie-Gordon — appearing for the first time at the Cabaret — who does the production proud with a streetwise and imaginative performance.

The production is deranged but brilliant, nutty but endearing, like a lover you can’t quite quit. “Avenue Q” remains highly original despite a long history on the stage; put on your monster suit and go.

The show runs through Sept. 9 at Oregon Cabaret Theatre, corner of First and Hargadine streets, Ashland. Curtain is at 8 p.m. Mondays, Wednesdays, Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays. Matinees are at 1 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays.

Tickets ($25 or $39) can be purchased at oregoncabaret.com, by calling 541-488-2902, or at the box office.

Ashland resident Jeffrey Gillespie is a Tidings columnist, arts reviewer and freelance writer. Email him at gillespie.jeffrey@gmail.com.

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