Remember watching “Sesame Street” as a kid? Of course you do. Ever since its first episode aired in 1969, millions of children have tuned in and grown up with this PBS favorite aimed to make learning fun while teaching kids to share, care and brush their teeth.
Tonight through Saturday at 8 p.m., Sunday at 2 p.m.
Lydia Mendelsshon Theater
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But for those who now find themselves confronting “big-people problems” not covered in any of the show’s 4,000-plus episodes, the Ann Arbor Civic Theater’s 2011-2012 season debut, “Avenue Q,” is here to help. Featuring a mixed puppet/human cast, the show follows the lives of some colorfully irreverent down-and-out New York City residents, including a recent college grad named Princeton, a young (and furry) professional, aptly named Kate Monster, and their apartment manager, Gary Coleman.
The Tony-winning show’s human characters and Muppet-esque creatures thoroughly delight in satirizing “mature” issues like Internet pornography and racism. Veteran director Wendy Sielaff was acutely aware of the demands that the show’s content would present.
“For me, it’s been a little challenging, but it’s kind of enjoyable, too, because I know I’m pushing the bar for community theater,” Sielaff said. “We haven’t changed any of the lyrics or the dialogue, so we’ll see if the audience can make it through Act One with all the puppet sex.”
Along with tackling its lovably crude but demanding script, Sielaff had to account for the logistical obstacles many of her actors faced as they carried their puppet counterparts around the stage.
“The biggest difficulty by far was not only having to direct human beings, but having to direct puppets at the same time,” Sielaff said. “I’ve never tried to do anything like this before.”
Because a seamless performance between actor and puppet is crucial to the show’s success, Sielaff ensured that the felt-covered characters were incorporated into every step of her creative process — even before she’d finalized her human cast.
“We had a puppet at our auditions,” Sielaff said. “Since this isn’t a huge dance show, we had the actors kind of manipulate them just to see if they had hand-eye coordination while they did some different techniques that the puppeteer we had wanted to see.”
Since the rights to perform “Avenue Q” have only recently become available to the public, many parts of the musical’s production have become an improvised learning process, even for a 20-year theater veteran like Sielaff.
“Much of the challenge came from it being a brand new show to community theater,” she said. “We really wanted to do it well and keep the script pure. We didn’t want to change anything or try to put our own flavor on it. We just tried to keep it what ‘Avenue Q’ was meant to be.”
Sielaff knows the show’s quirky lyrics and outrageous characters build a surprisingly down-to-earth story — students may even end up seeing a little of themselves underneath the fur and polyester-blend fluff of the puppet cast.
“Just look at our opening song, ‘What Do You Do with a BA in English?’ ” Sielaff said. “That’s the thread of the show, you know — what’s Princeton’s purpose? And so I think the college kids will absolutely relate to the show since they’re pretty much Princeton and Kate Monster.”
So whether you’re looking for your own “Purpose,” wondering if “Everyone’s a Little Bit Racist” or just hoping that “You Can Be as Loud as the Hell You Want (When You’re Makin’ Love),” the Ann Arbor Civic Theater and “Avenue Q” are sure to provide you with all of life’s answers that Cookie Monster wasn’t allowed to say on television.