I expected to love Avenue Q, the rude and outrageous Sesame Street send-up that won Tony Awards for best musical, best book, and best original score on its way to a six-year Broadway run. What's not to like about puppets having sex? What I didn't expect from Balagan Theater was a production that rivals anything I've seen at the 5th Avenue, for a fraction of the ticket price. And why shouldn't it? The talented cast includes a handful of 5th Avenue regulars, including Kirsten DeLohr Helland, who brings to Kate Monster the same comedic energy and powerful voice she brought to the role of Ado Annie in the 5th's recent production of Oklahoma. And director Eric Ankrim, who won acclaim for Balagan's Spring Awakening, has been tapped to direct 5th Avenue's upcoming production of Elf: The Musical.

This is 5th Avenue talent at an off- Broadway price, and Avenue Q doesn't suffer any from the downsizing. If anything, the material is better suited to the smaller space, engendering a more intimate experience with the foul-mouthed puppets. At only $25 a pop, Avenue Q may be the best theater value in Seattle, and it's an auspicious start to Balagan's ambitious new season. recommended