Using puppet shows to impart life lessons—sharing feels good, lying is wrong, and the world is pretty much exploding with opportunity—has long been an effective tool for teaching children. But what happens when those children grow up, move out of the house, earn a B.A. in English, move into a deteriorating apartment in a sketchy neighborhood, and discover the mountains of bills and minimal career opportunities the world actually has to offer? Puppets are suspiciously quiet about that.
- PHOTO BY DANIELLE DUTRO PHOTOGRAPHY
- OUT REPUBLICAN, CLOSETED HOMOSEXUAL : Ultra-conservative Rod (Michael Rogers, left), afraid to confront his obvious gayness, spins a fantastic lie about his fictional girlfriend in Canada, much to the chagrin of his friends from Avenue Q (everyone else, right).
But it’s often in this post-collegiate, pre-adulthood stage that we could really use a fresh dose of puppet wisdom, and for that we have Avenue Q. The Broadway musical, whose format, plush characters, bouncy music, and name both honor and satirize Sesame Street, debuted in 2003 to showers of acclaim and adoration. If someone somewhere fussed over its political incorrectness, potty language, puppet sex scene, or Internet porn-loving version of Oscar the Grouch, their cries must quickly have been drowned out—proving that if you have something crass to say, it’s best to put it in the felt mouth of a hand puppet.
By now, Avenue Q’s bankable lovability almost makes the show a guaranteed hit. (Songs like “The Internet is for Porn” and “If You Were Gay” would probably still be funny if delivered by a robot.) Happily, though, Kelrik Productions’ current staging of this instant classic relies minimally on its inherent funniness, infusing the musical with originality without messing with its winning formula.
The show begins when the freshly graduated, sweater vest-wearing Princeton, puppeteered by Cody Pettit, moves out of his parents’ place to an apartment way out in Avenue Q, buoyed by the prospect of a new job. There, he meets a ragtag assortment of flesh and felt. As puppets go, there is Kate Monster (Adrianna Lieby), a chirpy kindergarten teacher’s assistant; Rod, an out Republican but closeted homosexual (a wonderful Michael Rogers, also the show’s director of puppetry); Rod’s amiable roommate/lust object Nicky (an earnest Mark Rohner); and Trekkie Monster (Lester Wilson), the aforementioned harrumphy cyberporn addict, whose appearances often garner the heartiest laughs.
On the human side of things, we meet Brian (Jeremy Ryan) and Christmas Eve (Danielle Mendoza), a charming couple who couldn’t be more different from one another: She’s a Japanese stereotype sporting a thick accent, a kimono, and a hot temper; he’s an all-American, sloppy, would-be comedian who never quite got his act off the ground. And of course, there’s the superintendent, former child star Gary Coleman (Nicki Barnes, who gives it her all).
Our heroes quickly bond over life’s cruelties with the cheery number “It Sucks to Be Me,” outdoing one another with tales of their pathetic lives (no job, no boyfriend, an annoying roommate) until Gary Coleman weighs in with his sob story, easily topping them all and making everyone feel better about themselves. That’s what he’s there for.
Still, everyone’s got his or her own set of problems, many with a deeply New York vibe. Rod bristles as Nicky tries to tell him, soothingly, that it’s OK to be gay. (The image of Nicky, a green puppet with a Kermit-like voice, crooning If you were queeer/ I’d still be heeere… is priceless.)
Kate gets huffy when Princeton asks if she and Trekkie Monster are related, because, you know, they’re both monsters. Their argument leads to the epiphany, delivered in delightful, liberating sing-along, that “Everyone’s a Little Bit Racist.”
Driving the story forward is Princeton’s quest to find a purpose for his life—and his B.A. in English. These are goals he often mopily declares lost causes, if only to have a reason for a cheering-up song, like “Purpose” (Purpose,/ it’s that little flame/ that lights a fire under your ass) and “There Is Life Outside Your Apartment.”
Complicating Princeton’s life further are the adorable Bad Idea Bears, (played by Kelly Barrett and Redzuan Abdul Rahim), two teddy bears who regularly appear in times of weakness to coax him into making hilariously poor choices. And just when it looks like he and Kate Monster are going to be an item, along comes Lucy the Slut (a perfectly cast Veronica Surber) to make things more interesting.
Saucy cartoon vignettes, played on a screen to the left of the stage, break up the action, attempting to explain away grownup issues with all the cheery clarity of The Magic Schoolbus.
Part of what helps this particular production succeed is the puppeteers’ ability to pour life into their respective characters without forgetting that the audience is watching them, too. The puppeteers’ faces, ostensibly invisible to those onstage, tend to hold the subtext of a situation, occasionally revealing the clash between what a puppet is saying and what he or she is thinking. It’s great fun to glance from human to puppet and back, though a melodramatic line like “I don’t know why I’m even alive!” is somehow funnier coming from the latter.
Directed by Kelrik co-founder Erik Austin (who also designed the simple, clever set) Avenue Q is the first of Kelrik’s new After Dark series, a program of more adult-oriented entertainment from a theater company generally geared toward youth. And it’s a perfect place to start, really: childhood nostalgia injected with wry humor and jaded realism, like getting high and revisiting that VHS tape of Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood, thinking, man, this is wack.
Arts Editor Anna Weltner can count! You can, too! Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.