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A success on his hands

Puppeteering is just one of John Tartaglia's skills in the musical 'Avenue Q,' about young adults confronting grown-up issues.

March 07, 2004|Philip Brandes | Special to The Times

"It's nice being here in L.A.," John Tartaglia says, with visible relief. "People look at me as an actor first."

If this comment sounds strange in a city that worships the pursuit of stardom, perhaps that's because it comes from an actor whose professional reputation has, until recently, been eclipsed by cloth-covered hand puppets.

Now, after a 10-year stint as a puppeteer on "Sesame Street," Tartaglia is finally earning recognition for his other performing talents, thanks to "Avenue Q," the Broadway musical in which he acts, sings and dances while manning two of the show's puppet characters.

At 26, the fresh-faced, quick-witted Tartaglia makes an ideal poster boy for "Avenue Q's" incongruous mix of streetwise skepticism and feel-good exuberance. His energetic stage presence drives many of the show's hilarious and often outrageous songs about the tribulations of twentysomethings coping with adult responsibilities in a rundown neighborhood where you live when "you can't afford to live anywhere else."

Performed with live actors and puppets (the latter operated in full view by Tartaglia and three fellow veteran "Sesame Street" puppeteers), "Avenue Q" is sometimes characterized as a parody of the long-running PBS series -- a label Tartaglia is quick to disavow.

"It's much more than a parody," he explains during a recent visit to Los Angeles to tape a "Hollywood Squares" appearance with one of his puppet characters. "That was a term we used promoting the show at first, because it was an easy way to describe it. But in some ways it ended up painting us into a corner. It has elements of parody, but there's a lot more to it than its comedic value -- or its puppets."

More accurately, "Avenue Q" applies the widely imprinted vocabulary of "Sesame Street" and children's television -- the cute puppets, perky songs, colorful educational graphics -- to the grown-up theme of weathering disillusionment. Improbably, yet with remarkable success, the show wraps themes of poverty, sexual confusion, racism and existential angst in sunny, hummable songs that leave audiences grinning on their way out the door. This broad acceptance is all the more surprising given the show's edgy, often racy language and subject matter. ("Full puppet nudity!" warns a sign prominently displayed in front of the Golden Theatre -- a tongue-in-cheek caution, since the show's puppets, like their "Sesame Street" cousins, exist only from the waist up.)

Still, the abundant profanity and a suggestively steamy puppet sex scene limit the show's suitability to more mature audiences. "We break that barrier very quickly," Tartaglia pointed out. In the opening number, an obscenity is uttered in exasperation by boyfriend-less Kate Monster, the furry kindergarten teacher heroine played by Tartaglia's fellow "Sesame Street" alum Stephanie D'Abruzzo. After the initial shock of hearing a puppet swear, he says, audiences adapt quickly. "It's funny that what gets the most attention in the media is always the puppet sex or the puppets cursing, but that's really such a small part of the show. I've had people come up to me and say, 'I thought it was going to be two hours of puppet sex,' when it's only a three-minute scene."

Gratuitous shock value was never the intent of Robert Lopez and Jeff Marx, the show's creators, Tartaglia adds. "It's not like we set out with the idea of 'Oh, wouldn't it be hysterical to have puppets curse and drink and have sex' -- I don't think I would have done the show if that's all it was, because that's just cheap. We were doing a show about twentysomethings living in New York City and of course that's how they talk, and of course they're going to have sex and do the things that those people do at that point in their lives."

The show's ingenious use of puppets gives its sometimes provocative content a comic veneer. "If Stephanie and I were to sing 'You're a little bit racist' up there by ourselves, people would be throwing things. Puppets allow you to get away with a lot of taboo subjects. People tend to be a lot more forgiving."

Social commentary through puppetry is a tradition that goes back to the Punch and Judy shows of medieval Europe and long before that in African societies. "It's funny, but we're the only country that doesn't look at puppetry as an art. Now we're starting to, but up until very recently puppeteering was looked at as birthday party material. As brilliant and as wonderful as children's television's use of puppets has been in making them a staple of American life, it's also in some ways limited the art."

While that stigma still endures, Tartaglia hopes "Avenue Q" is helping to change it.

Judging from the show's broad appeal, he's getting his wish. The story focuses on people in their 20s and 30s, but Tartaglia says audiences of all ages find it easy to identify with the characters. "They don't represent any particular race or religion or ethnic background, so it's easier to project your emotions [onto them]," he says.

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