By John Quinn, EncoreMichigan.com

A subversive little musical called “Avenue Q” made a big splash when it moved onto Broadway in 2003, winning three Tony Awards: Best Musical, Best Original Score and Best Original Book. It is the dark mirror image of the sunny simplicity of “Sesame Street.” In songs and jokes and puppetry it teaches that, in the adult world, thinking “the sky’s the limit” results in a cracked noggin against a glass ceiling.

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Our scene is a run-down street in an outer borough of NYC. Our hero, Princeton (a “human” puppet, performed by Eric Niece), an English major with a new diploma but no job skills, has worked his way down from Avenue A, looking for a place he can afford. On Avenue Q, the price is right and the neighbors seem friendly. They include Kate (Andrea Thibodeau), pink, fuzzy and not bad looking for a monster; Rod (Niece again, with no hint of schizophrenia), an investment banker with a torturous secret; and his slacker roommate Nicky (Steve Xander Carson). Rod and Nicky bear a striking resemblance to a pair of long-time puppet roommates still appearing on public television. Another familiar voice – and bathmat pelt – is the curmudgeon Trekkie Monster (Carson. These guys really get around), addicted not to Archway, but to Internet porn. Tim Stone is the puppeteer who wears many hats, as well as heads, and is always around to lend a hand.

So much for the felt, fur, feathers and fuzz neighbors. In residence are some real humans: Brian (Casey Hibbert), stand-up comedian wannabe and his soon-to-be bride, Christmas Eve (Lauren Fuller), Asian-heritaged therapist with no clients. Rounding out the cast is building superintendent Gary Coleman (THE Gary Colman; my how the mighty have fallen!), played by Yana Levovna.

The main plot is pretty standard. Puppet meets monster. Distracted by his search for “purpose,” puppet loses monster. Puppet discovers “purpose” may be the journey rather than the goal, and puppet and monster are together again for the up-tempo finale.

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Not so fast; it’s not that simple. “Avenue Q” is a counter-cultural poke at its inspiration’s incessant optimism. Regardless of the puppetry involved, this ain’t kid’s stuff. Both in song and story, the musical is profane, bawdy, and occasionally raunchy. It’s as if Jim Henson’s Creature Factory had been turned to the Dark Side of the Force. It even contains an extended scene of full puppet nudity. That being said, “Avenue Q” is also wickedly funny.

As re-invented by the What’s That Smell? troupe, “Avenue Q” leaves Broadway glitz behind to play with the fundamentals of character and plot that has made this cynical satire a timeless favorite. This is a difficult project, one of the most ambitious of this theater season. The production is a bare-bones rendering, where the stars are clearly Mark Konwinski’s beautifully rendered puppet troupe. The award-winning score sounds deceptively simple; it’s not. The singers step up to the challenge and the chorus numbers are great. The puppetry, though, is going to look a little loose. The production does not use selective lighting to highlight the character, as was done for the late Wayland Flowers and Madame; nor do the puppets appear over a wall, a la the Muppets. The puppeteers and their charges move around the stage in full view, and it takes an act of will to watch the stone faced character instead of the more expressive actor behind him. Regardless of their previous stage experience, the cast are novices in puppetry, and all-in all their work is extraordinary.

Notice above how the actors play multiple roles. This extends to back stage, too. Stage director Kevin Fitzhenry also designed both set and lights, and building the massive set seems to have been a collaboration of actors, friends and family. There is an old adage: “Many hands make light work.” It would seem that relatively few hands can pull off a major accomplishment successfully, but I’m betting it was hard work. Maybe the positive attitude which comes from playing on the sunny side of the street conquers obstacles. I wouldn’t know; a critic is theater’s version of Oscar the Grouch.

For tickets and showtimes, visit EncoreMichigan.com.

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John Quinn reviews local theater productions for http://www.EncoreMichigan.com, the state’s most comprehensive resource for news and information about Michigan’s professional theaters. Follow them on Facebook @EncoreMichigan.com.