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Posted Oct 23, 2012, 10:47 am
The recent political focus on the Public Broadcasting System has highlighted the fact that everyone born since the mid-1960s in America has been raised to some degree on the TV show, Sesame Street.
The musical “Avenue Q” seizes on that shared experience to create a hilarious parody where puppets and people also live side-by-side. By thrusting the imagined children’s society of Sesame Street into adult situations, “Avenue Q” creates a place where platitudes are perverted by harsh realities. The Broadway production in 2004 took home Tony awards for Best Musical, Best Book and Best Original Score.
This is the last week for the University of Arizona’s own production of “Avenue Q,” a well-staged romp that showcases the multiple talents of the student program.
If the content seems a bit raunchy for older audiences – this is not “Guys and Dolls” – remember that these students grew up with both Sesame Street and access to the Internet.
Unlike Sesame Street, the puppeteers in “Avenue Q” are almost always visible. By convention, we are supposed to focus on the puppets and ignore their handlers in a willing suspension of disbelief. “Avenue Q” deliberately makes this impossible – not only are these puppeteers not hiding, they are simultaneously actors purposely displaying all the body language and expressions of their inanimate characters as if they weren’t holding puppets at all. It’s a delirious illusion.
The wacky plot
The story follows the puppet Princeton, a recent college graduate searching for his purpose in life, while pondering through song, “What Do You Do with a B.A. in English?” Still relying on his parents for support, he finds an apartment in New York’s outer boroughs. There Princeton meets his human neighbors, the unemployed Brian and his Japanese wife, Christmas Eve, and building super Gary Coleman (yes, modeled on the blown-out adulthood of the Different Strokes child actor). There are also fellow puppets: wholesome Kate Monster, the porn-loving Trekkie Monster and the resident odd-couple, Nicky and Rod.
Act I sets the stage for this dystopic neighborhood, with songs like, “It Sucks to Be Me,” “Everyone’s A Little Bit Racist” and “The Internet is for Porn.”
The Question of Bert and Ernie
The perennial questions about Sesame Street’s Bert and Ernie are embodied in Nicky, a slacker with a throaty Muppet voice, and Rod, a effeminate investment banker whose favorite reading material is “Showtunes from the 1940s.”
Rod has fantasies about Nicky, but can’t quite allow himself out of the closet. Nicky and Rod duet on “If You Were Gay,” allowing “that would be okay.” Eventually, Rod protesting that he’s not gay with “My Girlfriend, Who Lives in Canada,” kicks Nicky out.
Princeton’s mixed messages to Kate confuse her, but then seem clear when they go to the neighborhood café to catch Brian’s comedy act (“I’m Not Wearing Underwear Today”). There a puppet aptly named Lucy the Slut competes with Kate for Princeton’s affection. Fueled by Long Island Iced Teas, Princeton and Kate fall into an amorous frenzy, leading not only to full puppet nudity, but to vigorous puppet sex – including, but not limited to, missionary, cowgirl, and doggie – made all the more hilarious by the fact that both puppets exist only from the waist up.
From here, the plot shifts into screwball comedy mode.
Kate, hungover, gets fired from her teaching assistant job. Princeton recoils from commitment and instead hooks up with Lucy. Lucy destroys a message Kate leaves for Princeton, who is now having second thoughts about Lucy. When Princeton doesn’t respond to the note he never got, Kate tosses his lucky penny from the Empire State Building, accidentally hitting Lucy on the head and turning her into a born-again Christian.
Kate decides to follow her dream and open her own school, funded by Trekkie Monster, who, of course, has made a fortune in porn. Rod finally admits he’s gay and reunites with Nicky. Kate and Princeton reunite. Princeton is still searching for his purpose when the show reaches its existential conclusion.
The actors/puppeteers of the University of Arizona production “Avenue Q” are simply awesome to behold. Among the very talented cast, standouts include Michael Calvoni as Princeton, Cooper Hallstrom as Rod, Chris Carl as Nicky, Sydnee Ortiz as Gary Coleman, Caitlin Stegemoller as Lucy and Marie MacKnight as Kate Monster.
Special credit also goes to UA alumni Michelle Lane who returned to the school to serve as director of puppetry for the show. Lane, who earned her BFA in Musical Theatre in 2000, was in the Broadway cast of Avenue Q before it closed and in the original cast of the Las Vegas production.
The show’s music is very well performed and the production sports what may be perfect sound. The vocals are clear and crisp; the off-stage orchestra balanced and taut.
Kudos to director Rob Gretta for a vibrant, irreverent and superbly staged show that demonstrates the quality of the UA theatre program both past and present.