Songs reveal the human heart behind 'Avenue Q' puppetry

The secret of Avenue Q lies in the song that ends the first act. A monster puppet named Kate has glimpsed a chance for love, but the guy gets cold feet. She sends him away and launches into Broadway's best ballad so far this century: It's a Fine, Fine Line.

It's the line between a lover and a friend, between a dream come true and a waste of her time. At the show's Dallas premiere in the Lexus Broadway Series on Tuesday, performer Jacqueline Grabois began the number in her cute, white-toned TV-monster voice. Gradually, she let the richer registers of her vocal instrument shine through. By the end, it was a heartbroken young woman singing, not a puppet.

This show won the 2004 Tony Award for best musical because it attracts a hip, younger audience with its sometimes shockingly tasteless jokes about pornography, racism and such, all part of its adults-only parody of Sesame Street. It also won because of the superb craft of songwriters Robert Lopez and Jeff Marx.

That expertise keeps you going, even when you find the humor sophomoric. Jeff Whitty's book depicts a community of recent college graduates trying to find their way in big-city life. They have big dreams but lousy jobs. They're trying to find themselves sexually, too, not an easy task for this bunch.

Another reason for the show's success is the opportunities it affords its small cast. Grabois doubles as the heroine, Kate Monster, and her nemesis, Lucy the Slut. The performer sometimes hands off one puppet to another actor during a scene.

Brent Michael DiRoma takes on an even more challenging double duty. He plays Kate's love interest, Princeton, and Rod, a gay neighbor who tries valiantly to stay in the closet.

The current touring cast maintains the show's standards. One curious detail is that a man, Nigel Jamaal Clark, plays Gary Coleman. (Yes, that Gary Coleman. The joke is that the former child star is the apartment's superintendent.) Usually the part is performed by a woman.

Sadly, the show takes the prize for the worst sound in an amplified show since the Winspear Opera House opened.