In his 20-year stage career, David Benoit has played everything from a fresh-scrubbed boy-band singer to a dancing vampire. But when the Fall River-born, Somerset-bred actor comes to the Colonial Theatre Tuesday in the Boston debut of "Avenue Q," he will inhabit a role he's been unknowingly preparing for his whole life: an Internet-porn-addicted monster.
This is not because Benoit is addicted to Internet porn. For the record, he hits the information superhighway "mostly to pay bills," he says with a laugh. No, Benoit's affinity for playing Trekkie Monster and three other characters in this funny, furry Tony-winning musical can be traced to first grade, when he loved nothing more than bringing his Bert puppet to school to entertain classmates.
He took to the puppet like the Cookie Monster to chocolate chips. "I'd bring him to class and I wouldn't even talk like him, I'd just act like an idiot," Benoit recalls of how he tried to get laughs courtesy of a little felt with a well-placed unibrow.
"I used to make puppets, too, I was such a goon," the actor says by phone from Milwaukee, the current stop on the show's national tour. "I used to make sock puppets and cut the hole in the mouth and get cardboard and fold it in half and glue it in there, and decorate them. I was doing that all through my childhood."
That kind of youthful fascination is what "Avenue Q" co-creators Jeff Marx and Bobby Lopez were tapping into when they conceived a show meant to work as "Sesame Street" for adults.
"It's lauding how wonderful it was for us growing up and how much we miss it," says Marx of his show's primary inspiration. "And how we wish we had our puppet friends now to get through life today."
"Avenue Q" tells the tale of Princeton, a new college grad unsure of his purpose in life. Broke, he moves to the titular thoroughfare, a run-down area in an outer borough of New York where he meets the people and puppets in his neighborhood. They include the idealistic kindergarten assistant teacher Kate Monster; a pair of mismatched roommates, the closeted Rod and genial slacker Nicky (also played by Benoit); the non-puppet couple Brian, a wannabe comedian, and Christmas Eve, a Japanese immigrant with multiple degrees; and the aforementioned Web-surfing Trekkie Monster. Oh, and former child star Gary Coleman (played by an actress), who is a building super. As Princeton sorts out his future, he learns lessons through such songs as "Everyone's a Little Bit Racist" and "If You Were Gay" - lessons about the meaning of community, friendship, love, and the pleasures of "full-puppet nudity."
Benoit says that ever since he saw "Avenue Q" for the first time, he's loved what it has to say to audiences weaned on the sunny days and rainbow connections of their childhood Muppet pals.
"I'm 42. I was very moved by it, and the thing that I loved about it is that it was very funny and witty and had a huge heart and a little edge," he says. "That's kind of how I see myself. I felt really connected, like 'This is who I am.' "
That edge was key to the show. "Bobby and I are intense lovers of musical theater, but we recognize it's not the preeminent art form anymore," says Marx during a recent trip to Boston. "So the raciness and the humor and the parodies and the 'Sesame Street' aspect we were hoping would get more people interested than if it were just a straight-ahead musical, and it seems to have worked."
Indeed, it worked so well that the show won three Tonys, including one for best musical, in 2004. But when it came time to hit the road, finding a fresh supply of musical-theater actors who could also be puppeteers was a challenge.
It was here that Benoit had another ace up his sleeve. "I actually did the original 'Q' parody in 'Forbidden Broadway'," he says, adding with a laugh, "and I built the puppet."
Since graduating from the Boston Conservatory, Benoit has worked steadily, first with regional troupes such as North Shore Music Theatre and SpeakEasy Stage Company. After moving to New York he performed on Broadway and in touring companies of "Forever Plaid," "Dance of the Vampires," "All Shook Up," and, for six years, "Les Miserables," mostly as the dastardly thief Thenardier. Whenever he didn't have a steady gig, he would return to the beloved musical revue "Forbidden Broadway."
The "Q" number was called "You Gotta Get a Puppet" - sung to the tune of "You Gotta Get a Gimmick" from "Gypsy" - and it included spoofs of "The Lion King" and the plant from "Little Shop of Horrors" as well as "Avenue Q." "And now they call me for the replacement puppets," Benoit says.
"Avenue Q" is "exactly right for David," says John Freedson, a "Forbidden Broadway" producer, director, and actor who confirms that Benoit Fed Ex-ed him a new set of puppets two months ago from Las Vegas, where "Q" took up residence prior to the tour. As a fellow student at the Boston Conservatory, Freedson remembers Benoit having "a big, baritone Robert Goulet-kind of voice." He says Benoit's sensibilities, and the talents that served him so well in "Forbidden Broadway," are the perfect match for "Avenue Q": "It has a sweet innocence and yet a knowing smartness."
Despite Benoit's background of performing with his hands full, which includes eight years of tuba playing (another kind of heavy lifting), Benoit admits to being "in agony" at his first audition, which left his forearms throbbing. "I knew I could do the lip synch but there's so much nuance, and at first I was pretty overwhelmed because I had not one but four puppets to deal with in the show," he says. "It's rubbing the belly and patting the head."
But an arduous two-week boot camp followed, overseen by original "Q" puppeteer Rick Lyon, who played the characters Benoit does now in the original Broadway cast. "I took to it very quickly," says Benoit. And now, with almost two years' tenure from Broadway, Las Vegas, and this tour, "it feels so easy. I have utmost respect for the puppeteering, and to this day I still concentrate on getting better at it. That keeps it fresh for all the puppeteers in the show because we know it's an art form that we're slowly chipping away at. I'm humbled by it."
At "Avenue Q" shows, audiences sometimes focus more on the puppets than the people manipulating them. "There are actors who have issues about visibility and being upstaged by a puppet, but I think anybody who takes their job seriously is absolutely OK with it," says Lyon.
Benoit agrees. "You really do need to pay attention to the actor, but you combine the two, like watching a foreign film with the subtitles. If we're doing our job right they become one."
That's one of many lessons he's learned from the show. He plans to impart another when he returns to Boston Conservatory to talk to students when the tour hits Boston.
"When I go back to Conservatory, I tell the students I built a career on all those silly voices that we all used to do to make each other laugh," he says. "Never dismiss anything that is unique to you, because my tuba playing and my silly impersonations and all those silly idiosyncrasies have given me a career."