"Avenue Q" is not a puppet show for kids.
Not only do its relationship-challenged young-adult puppet characters swear and drink, but they live in a grungy New York neighborhood that could use a good cleaning.
These puppets may look like they belong on the set of a certain famous children's TV show, but their very adult behavior makes this clever musical appropriate for, well, the adults who are its intended audience at Columbia's Red Branch Theatre Company.
If the rudely funny characters only spouted naughty words, they eventually would become tiresome. That's why it's reassuring to see that this production really brings out this show's essential sweetness.
Although the aptly named Bad Idea Bears (Beth Cohen and Cory Jones) constantly suggest all manner of socially transgressive things to the other puppet characters, some of whom frankly don't need much prompting to misbehave, there's ultimately the assertion that such old-fashioned traits as love and loyalty will prevail.
Even if "Avenue Q" did not have that naughty-yet-nice formula working in its favor, it would be fun to watch at the level of performance. Some of the actors manipulate hand-held puppets in such a way that you can appreciate the human actors' facial reactions as much as their vocal skills; some of the other actors do not come with, er, boisterously expressive puppets attached and simply present themselves as conventional human characters on stage. It's a quirky presentational mix that inherently makes you think about various tactics that can be deployed to bring characters alive.
This well-cast production directed by Jenny Male ensures that you're alert to these lively characters. Princeton (Zac Brightbill) is a shy recent college graduate whose unemployed status prompts him to rent an apartment in this low-rent neighborhood. His eventual love interest, Kate Monster (Sherry Benedek), can be as assertive as her last name, but don't let her literally hairy face fool you. Kate is a good monster, er, person, er, whatever.
One of the moral lessons imparted by Jeff Whitty's book in this musical is that everybody in this neighborhood should put superficial differences aside and learn to get along. It's worth passing that message along to the small children who otherwise are not the audience for this show.
Such lessons also are light-heartedly conveyed by the music and lyrics by Robert Lopez and Jeff Marx. When Princeton ponders his seemingly unpromising future in such songs as "What Do You Do with a B.A. in English?" and "Purpose," you understand how lost he initially feels in his new neighborhood. As Princeton and Kate embark on a potentially romantic friendship, songs such as "Mix Tape" help advance their relationship.
Anchored by those two lead performances, the show also benefits from deftly delivered supporting performances in roles that likewise reinforce the importance of getting along. More than a decade out of college, Brian (Keith Tittermary) worries about slipping into mediocre middle age; his courtship of an English language-mangling Asian woman named Christmas Eve (Erin Branigan) amounts to a romantic gift from a superficially very different person. And roommates Nicky (Gavin Shown) and Rod (Josh Kemper) have friendship-related issues to resolve.
The wild assortment of additional characters includes Trekkie Monster (Dean Davis), who is like a wild party animal; a sultry nightclub singer, Lucy (Sara Cobb), who is like a curvy invitation to sin; and Gary Coleman (Wil Lewis III), an existentially weird character who supposedly is the former TV child star now reduced to the relatively lowly status as Princeton's landlord.
All of the actors skillfully impersonate their colorful characters, even if Lewis and occasionally other actors tend to be more secure with their comic timing than with their singing.
This actually isn't a problem here, because the character-based songs are carried by personality as much as by the vocal delivery. It also helps that the mini-band vigorously led by musical director Dustin Merrell guarantees that the performers and audience alike remain in a cheerful mood.
"Avenue Q" runs through Oct. 21 at Red Branch Theatre Company, 9130-I Red Branch Road in Columbia. Remaining performances are Oct. 12, 13, 18, 19 and 20 at 8 p.m., Oct. 14 and 21 at 3 p.m. Tickets are $18 in advance and $20 at the door, $16 for seniors and students. Call 410-997-9352 or go to http://www.redbranchtheatrecompany.com.