Who said puppets are just for children?
Certainly not composer/lyricist Robert Lopez or writer Jeff Whitty or the cast and crew of “Avenue Q,” the Tony Award-winning musical that opened the 70th season (and a short one-week-only run) Tuesday evening at The Barn Theatre in Augusta, MI.
“Avenue Q” Opened Off Broadway in March 2003, moved to Broadway in July, won three of the top Tony Awards and played there through September 2009. In October it returned to Off Broadway where it still plays today.
Talk about a popular show!
The Barn production shows just why.
Under the solid direction of Eric Parker, 11 puppets and 10 humans offer a delightfully insightful look at the pros and cons of young adulthood as lived on Avenue Q.
For whatever reason, three adults are puppetless throughout while six create create 10 almost larger-than-life characters. Seven are rod puppets and four, hand puppets which frequently require two puppeteers. One “extra’ adult, Samantha Rickard, fills in several “bodies.”
For those who have never seen “Avenue Q,” the fact that the actors/puppeteers are highly visible at all times, moving and speaking/singing for their characters, might seem a definite distraction.
The puppets and human characters completely ignore the puppeteers and, after a very short time, so does the audience.
The show conjures memories of “Sesame Street” with a generous dash of “South Park,” but it is definitely its own . The primary protagonist is Princeton (Sam Balzac), a recent college graduate looking for a purpose and a cheap place to live. Meeting building superintendent Gary Coleman (Shinnerrie Jackson) he takes an apartment and meets the rest of his neighbors: Brian (Charlie King), an aspiring standup comic. and his Japanese fiancé Christmas Eve (Jasmine Ejan) a clientless therapist; roommates Rod (Balzac) a Republican banker, and out-of-work Nicky (Patrick Hunter); Trekkie Monster (Hunter), a growly hermit who spends his days searching for internet porn; and Kate Monster (Melissa Cotton), an assistant kindergarten teacher who dreams of opening her own Monstersori school.
In pursuit of his “Purpose.” Princeton meets the Bad Idea Bears (Brook Evans and Hans Friedrichs), who resemble cuddly Care Bears but have mischief on their minds, and Lucy the Slut (Cotton), a sleazy singer who aims her lyrics at Princeton, much to the annoyance of Kate Monster who , with Princeton, is enjoying a number of Long Island Iced Teas.
Their hazy night on the town, which includes hilariously noisy naked puppet sex, has unhappy consequences including breakups, rebounds, unemployment and homelessness.
Under the puppet guises and a wonderfully singable score, “Avenue Q” touches on a wealth of problems including sex, racism, pornography, commitment and homosexuality with a little ”Schadenfreude” (look it up, it’s more common than you think!) thrown in.
The outstanding cast makes the most of every situation, human or puppet. Cotton does an amazing “double take,” going from innocent to worldly with a flip of her hair (and her hip). Balzac’s characters are closer in temperament, but he differentiates beautifully, all without skipping a beat or dropping a line!
Hunter is perfect as both whiney sponger and grumbling monster. Jackson is a great grinning Coleman and the petite Ejan is delightful as the “crabby old bitch,” a title she embraces with enthusiasm.
The scenic design by Michael Wilson Morgan works well, with windows and doors, upstairs and down, operating smoothly.
Pianist/conductor Matt Shabala leads a solid instrumental quintet. There is at times a bit of overplaying, but that could be corrected by the sound operator.
All in all, a stroll down Avenue Q is a great way to spend an evening, but leave the children at home.
“AVENUE Q” plays through Sunday in the theater on M-96 between Galesburg and Augusta, MI. For performance times and reservations, call (269) 731-4121 or visit www.barntheatreschool.org