Brent Michael DiRoma vividly remembers the first time he saw Avenue Q.
His grandmother took him on his first trip to New York City when he was 15. A Tampa Bay, Fla.-area high school and community theater triple threat — he sings, acts and dances — DiRoma wanted to see a real Broadway musical. He wanted to see this show that he had heard so much about.
And he remembers "sinking deeper and deeper into my seat. It was a hearty, awkward experience."
Avenue Q has puppets, and it draws its inspiration from Sesame Street — but it's certainly not a show to take the kids to.
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"It's date night, not family night," says DiRoma, 21, who plays the lead role of Princeton in the touring production of the show, which comes to the Lexington Opera House for a three-day stand next weekend. "It's not South Pacific."
No. No, it's not.
Put it this way: This is a puppet show whose posters were banned from bus stops in Colorado Springs, Colo., because they featured an up-close shot of puppet cleavage — the same image that was seen in the men's restrooms at Rupp Arena during the Black Eyed Peas concert.
The puppet with the prominent cleavage? Her name is Lucy the Slut.
Scan the tracks on the cast recording, and you'll see the titles Everyone's a Little Bit Racist, The Internet Is for Porn and I'm Not Wearing Underwear Today.
As surprising as the content in Avenue Q can be, the show gave Broadway a real shock in 2004, when it beat out heavily favored Wicked for the Tony Award for best musical.
DiRoma thinks he knows why.
"Wicked is an amazing show," he says of the prequel to and alternate telling of The Wizard of Oz. "But it's a spectacle, not a musical. It's all about the spectacular singing and amazing effects.
"With Avenue Q, aside from potty humor, it's got a big ol' heart," DiRoma says.
Avenue Q could be to the stage what Judd Apatow movies are to the movies: bawdy romps that, in the end, convey uplifting, life-affirming messages.
"One of the cheekiest and raciest musicals. ... The deeply endearing Avenue Q will pull your heartstrings from start to finish," Karen D'Souza wrote, reviewing the Opera House-bound tour for the San Jose Mercury News. "One of the most surprising things about the show is that these fuzzy little friends really win our hearts."
What's more, they're winning young hearts. Ben Brantley wrote in his review for The New York Times, "For Broadway producers, who count every head in their audiences that isn't gray as a bonus, Avenue Q qualifies as a serious blessing."
The story centers on Princeton, a recent college graduate who moves to New York with a bachelor's degree in English and immediately finds himself struggling to survive on a far-flung street called Avenue Q. It's the only neighborhood he can afford on a micro bank account. But the neighbors are nice, he falls in love with a girl, he has a misadventure with another, and they all are on a quest to find their purpose in life.
Among the characters he meets are:
Trekkie Monster: Sort of like Cookie Monster, but with, ahem, more-adult addictions — check his name and the Internet song, above.
Lucy the Slut: A nightclub singer who lives up to her name, seducing and then leaving Princeton. (Note: Puppet cleavage is just the beginning.)
Gary Coleman: The Gary Coleman of Diff'rent Strokes fame, who in the show is a building superintendant.
Rod and Nicky: Roommates based on Sesame Street's Bert and Ernie, or, should we say, based on what people have suspected about the nature of Bert and Ernie's relationship over the years.
"I try to put a thought barrier between Sesame Street and Avenue Q, or I think I'd be scarred for life," DiRoma says.
But the show does conjoin his adult desire to sing and dance and his childhood desire to operate those puppets.
"We went to puppet boot camp," says DiRoma, who also operates Rod.
He learned the mechanics of operating the puppets during the two-day training. More important, he says, is that he learned how to make a puppet act human.
"If a person is going to take a breath before speaking, so is the puppet," DiRoma says. "The amazing thing is that you think the puppet is going to be a barrier between you and the audience, but it actually allows you to connect. It's like with some who plays a trombone: The instrument is what brings out their art."
And the show, he says, is about connecting to the audience and bringing out some hard truths that maybe help people understand one another better.
As an example, he cites the song Everyone's a Little Bit Racist, and its closing lyrics:
If we all could just admit
That we are racist a little bit,
And everyone stopped being
Maybe we could live in — harmony!
"If I was any human on stage talking about everyone being racist, or being loud having sex, or finding purpose in life, we could never say that as human actors," DiRoma says. "But when we are puppets, we can get away with it."
Yes, but after that awkward theater outing in New York, how does Grandma feel about him being in the show?
"We didn't really talk about it after the show," DiRoma says. "But now, she loves it."
Avenue Q clears another hurdle.