This is a good news/bad news look at the South Bend Civic Theatre production of “Avenue Q” which opened Sept.12 in the Warner Theatre.
The good news is the show is one of the very best put up by SBCT in its time in the new facility.
The bad news is, in spite of a scheduled three-week run plus one added performance, there are few, if any, seats available.
This quirky show went from Off-Broadway to Broadway in 2003, winning three Tony Awards including Best Musical. It stayed on Broadway until 2009 when it returned to Off-Broadway. It is still running today.
The title has a familiar ring, especially to parents of young children whose favorite TV fare is “Sesame Street,” but that’s really where the comparison ends.
Like the teaching thoroughfare of the PBS giant, “Avenue Q” has its share of life-lessons to impart and each is delivered with song, dance, love and laughter.
It is an unbeatable combination, especially in the hands of the talented SBCT troupe. Under the direction of Rick Ellis, with musical direction by Geoffrey Carter, its positive messages strike home with humor and honesty in a wide number of areas — relationships, race and religion, to name just a few.
If you think these topics have been examined theatrically ad nauseum, you are correct. But on Avenue Q, they get a new twist.
Eleven of the characters are puppets. Not the string variety but unique and hilariously individual “attachments” to six of the nine featured players.
Actually, the “attachments” are puppets controlled by human performers, some of whom play multiple characters. There is no attempt to hide the humans. In fact, they stand tall with one hand inside the puppet and, for the most part, the other on a long stick attached to the puppet’s “free” hand.
For those who think this might be a bit disconcerting, know that within just a few minutes, you don’t even notice the “real people.”
They make it look easy.
Lisa Blodgett as Christmas Eve, the Asian American (don’t call her Oriental!) therapist, and Travis Mayer as her unemployed would-be comedian fiancé, Brian, and Andre Spathelf-Sanders as Gary Coleman (yes, that Gary Coleman) are the only players who do not “control” a specific puppet.
At the center is Princeton (the ultra-versatile Sean Leyes), a college grad searching for his purpose in life. His very limited budget brings him apartment hunting on Avenue Q. It proves to be a diverse and uniquely entertaining area.
Meeting his neighbors makes him realize that, although the problems may not be the same, everybody has at least one.
Fellow residents are Kate Monster (SBCT veteran Natalie MacRae), a kindergarten teaching assistant; mis-matched roommates Nicky (Mike Barnette) and Republican investment banker Rod (Joel Stockton); Internet porn addict Trekkie Monster (one of Kevin James’ personae which include a Bad Idea Bear, a Moving Box, Ricky and a Newcomer); and last but definitely never least, Lucy the Slut (Shelly Overgaard who also is a Bad Idea Bear, a Moving Box and Mrs. T, Kate Monster’s crabby boss, who declares “Crabby old bitches are the bedrock of this nation!”).
The ways in which this unlikely ensemble interacts through times good and not-so-good are not only wonderfully entertaining but deliver solid footnotes beneath the laughter.
The set by Jaycee Rohick is multi-purposful, allowing “regular” entrances and exits as well as providing “screens” for the many video inserts, all of which are sharp and clear and an integral part of the action. (Note the SBCT execs whose resemblance to The Muppets’ crotchety old men in the box has to be deliberate.)
Most of the actors have solo voices, especially Leyes and MacRae, but all have a solid grasp (no pun intended) on their puppet(s) and are a solid vocal ensemble.
Obviously, a big part of any “Avenue Q” is the puppets, here the work of puppet designer/builder/trainer Dave Rozmarynowski. Each one is exactly right for its character and, combined with some very fine “controlling,” achieves the desired effect.
As in life, we can hide some of the time and let our puppets do the talking but, in the end, reality awaits.
Taking “Avenue Q” to get there is more than half the fun!
“AVENUE Q” plays through Sept. 28 in the SBCT Warner Theatre. For information and reservations, call (574) 234-1112 or visit www.sbct.org.
Note: Production contains adult language, themes and puppet nudity (also puppet sex).