Nigel Jamaal Clark jokes that working with puppets on stage in "Avenue Q" is much like working with kids and animals.
"Every night I have to worry about being upstaged by the puppets," says Clark, one of only three human characters in the Tony Award-winning musical, which opens Wednesday as the second show of Theatre League's season.
"I find myself getting lost in the puppets when I talk to them," he says. "I never used to touch the puppets but now I find myself putting my hand on their shoulders to comfort them. Every now and then, I force myself to make eye contact with the person operating them so I make sure we're on the same emotional wavelength."
The wacky, irreverent musical about post-college angst is a very adult homage to "Sesame Street" and its fuzzy inhabitants. It looks like familiar kid stuff with critters mimicking Bert and Ernie, Cookie Monster and the Care Bears. But the language is R-rated on occasion and the characters deal explicitly with topics like drugs, racism, homosexuality and pornography. There is even "full puppet nudity," making the show potentially unsuitable for people under 13.
But the show, which beat out "Wicked" for best book, original score and musical at the 2004 Tony Awards, is a clever look at twentysomethings adapting to life in the 21st century with breezy songs like "The Internet Is for Porn," "Everyone's a Little Bit Racist," "If You Were Gay (But I'm Not Gay)," "I'm Not Wearing Underwear Today" and, of course, the show's anthem, "It Sucks to Be Me," sung as the frustrated, fresh-out-of-college newcomer strives to find his "purpose" in life.
Clark, an Alaska native who didn't discover his passion for theater until senior year of high school, plays a character called Gary Coleman — yes, the washed-up child actor from "Diff'rent Strokes." In this show, Gary has grown up to become the building superintendant of a tenement in New York so far away from the high-rent district that it's on Avenue Q (after Avenue A, B, etc.).
"The key is that I don't make fun of Gary Coleman, the man. The director told me early on that it was important to keep a positive attitude toward him. I see him as a teacher, a mentor for all the nai(uml)ve young newcomers to Avenue Q," Clark says. "He shows other characters that failure happens but that you learn from it and rise above it. He makes joy out of pain."
Oklahoma native Kerri Brackin is one of the principal puppeteers who plays two distinct characters, and provides puppet moves for other characters voiced by other actors. She is Mrs. T, a crotchety kindergarten teacher, and the girl half of the Bad Idea Bears, who lead people into temptation at every turn.
"This is all new for me. I'd never had my hand up a puppet until I got this job," she says. "Now, I think I have my hand, literally, in every puppet in this show.
"It's definitely a different mind-set than just acting. You have to get the feel for when the puppets open their mouths to make them speak believably. And when somebody else is providing the voice while you do the movements, you have to work as a close team."
Brackin, who toured in "Hairspray" and has done regional work in "Gypsy," "Annie" and "The Goodbye Girl," likes the challenge of puppetry because it adds a new dimension to her craft.
"I work mostly in tandem with Jason Heymann, who does Trekkie Monster and Nicky (the Ernie-like nice guy). It's an interesting relationship. We have a great time together. There is one quick change where Jason slips his hand out of Nicky so I can slip mine in and continue. We have developed a special rhythm."
Brackin is looking forward to the Wichita stop because that's where her family and friends from Oklahoma will get to see her in "Avenue Q." But she also admits to a little trepidation because of the topics and language.
"I'm a little nervous for my family to see it, but I just know they'll get a kick out of it," Brackin says. "What I want them and all audiences to take away from the show is the message of acceptance. It's about loving people for who they are, not who you want them to be."
If you go
What: Tony Award winner as 2004's best musical; second show of Theater League's season
Where: Century II Concert Hall
When: 7:30 p.m. Wednesday-Thursday
How much: Tickets: $44-$59, available at Wichita Tix at 316-219-4849 or www.wichitatix.com.