Of course Howie Michael Smith watched a lot of “Sesame Street” growing up. How could he not?

Smith, a New York-based actor, plays the lead in the Ogunquit Playhouse production of “Avenue Q,” which opens the summer theater season in Maine. It is on stage at the Ogunquit Playhouse through June 18.

The creators of “Avenue Q” drew inspiration from the popular children’s TV show, as evidenced by the number of puppets that appear on stage and help propel the story. But make no mistake — with full frontal (puppet) nudity and songs such as “The Internet is for Porn,” this is not a play for children.

Smith played the lead role of Princeton close to 1,200 times on Broadway –for  three years of “Avenue Q’s” six-year Broadway run. He also played the role in the Off-Broadway revival, which continues.

“It was so much fun,” said Smith, who makes his debut at Ogunquit. “I never wanted to do anything else. It was a great, great run. It’s probably the most fun I have ever had doing a show, and that is why I have done it so many times.”

Princeton is a perfect role for Smith. He grew up obsessed with “Sesame Street” and puppets. “I would watch it anytime it was on, and try to pretend I was on the show.”

A two-act musical, “Avenue Q” is a coming-of-age story about the anxieties of becoming an adult. The characters, citing lessons taught on “Sesame Street,” grew up assured that they were special and had limitless opportunities. As adults, they learn that’s not true. The show won six Tony Awards, including best musical.

Ashley Eileen Bucknam, who plays Kate, was singing songs from “Avenue Q” in college long before she knew anything about the show. The soundtrack was standard fare in the dorms, she said. “In college, everyone loves the soundtrack. ‘The Internet is for Porn’ was everywhere,” she said.

Bucknam just finished the national tour of “Avenue Q.” She toured with the musical beginning in 2009, and was part of the cast that played in Portland this spring.

The challenge of these roles, she said, is playing real people while handling puppet duties. “You can’t get bored with this role,” she said. “The combination of the two characters just always leave you something to explore. You are playing two completely different personalities. It doesn’t get boring.”

After Bucknam saw the show, she auditioned for the national tour. She worked hard to learn puppetry before her call-back, buying an oven mitt, giving it a pair of eyes and practicing. Her work paid off. She was cast in the national tour, and “Avenue Q” has been her life since.

Keith Andrews directs the Ogunquit production. He last worked there with Sally Struthers in “The Full Monty. “I had such a great experience with this theater. It is run so well, so professionally, and the quality of the work is so high. I was looking for the perfect thing to come back, and this was it,” said Andrews.

For the director, the challenge of “Avenue Q” is accounting for the puppets. They are such an integral part of the show, they have to be part of the stage direction, the choreography — everything. The Ogunquit Playhouse is using parts of the set from the national tour, as well as its puppets. There are 62 of them in all, backstage.

“You see most of them as the course of the show goes on,” said Andrews, who has directed “Avenue Q” once before, at the Gateway Playhouse on Long Island, N.Y.

“I literally tell people that it’s one of the funniest shows I have ever seen,” he said. “And it has such a heart to it, and that is why it has done so well and won all the awards it has won. It is such a great piece of theater. And it’s unlike anything else out there.”

Staff Writer Bob Keyes can be contacted at 791-6457 or at:

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