News Column

Puppets behaving badly in 'Avenue Q'

June 1, 2013


June 01--One of Broadway's most popular and irreverent musicals will have its first locally-produced professional staging when the Human Race Theater Company introduces "Avenue Q."

The raunchy puppet show, an adult spoof on "Sesame Street," was a triple Tony Award winner in 2004 and will be on stage at the Loft Theater from June 6-29. Six evening performances have been added to the originally scheduled run due to strong advance ticket sales.

The musical, which integrates puppets, live actors, songs, short videos and a five-member band, is aimed at today's young adults raised on "Sesame Street." The local production is being produced in collaboration with Dayton's Zoot Theatre Company, which designed and built new puppets for the show.

The plot follows Princeton, a college graduate and recent New York arrival, and all of his wacky neighbors living "way, way out" on Avenue Q.

Katie Pees, resident artist at the Human Race, plays the roles of Kate Monster and Lucy the Slut.

"The show is a challenge because you have to make sure that the puppet is the center of attention and not the actor holding the puppet," said Pees, who had to learn new skills such as " where your puppet's focus should be, speaking with the puppet mouth and good diction, and how to react to everyone on stage."

Joe Deer directs

Joe Deer, who has headed Wright State University's musical theater department for the past 17 years, is director and choreographer. He said the show was an immediate Broadway hit because of the "funny juxtaposition of having characters that look like they just came out of 'Sesame Street' talk about life issues of people in their 20s -- like career and relationship problems, sex, and coming out of the closet."

Deer said both the writing and the songs are a riot and those who love "The Daily Show with Jon Stewart," "The Colbert Report" and "South Park" will find the musical "right up their alley." Among his favorite numbers: "It Sucks to Be Me," "Everyone's a Little Bit Racist" and "It's a Fine, Fine Line," the story of a girl trying to decide whether to stay in or leave a relationship.

Deer, who has been involved with 10 productions at The Human Race, said he loves the heightened emotional quality of musicals.

"I love that they incorporate acting and singing and dance, and that stylistically they are so varied and so theatrical," he said.

Although he has directed more than 135 productions over the years -- including Muse Machine musicals with as many as 87 students -- Deer says "Avenue Q' has been the most complex and challenging of all.

"It's the combination of puppets, singing, dancing and changing roles," he explained. "Sometimes one actor will be the body of the puppet and another actor will be the voice so there's a lot of trading off on stage -- although the audience will never know that's happening because it will all seem as simple as can be."

The casting, done in Dayton, Chicago and New York by Deer and producing artistic director Kevin Moore, also was a challenge. There are eight actors in the company -- three are human, the other five are puppeteers who play two to five different roles.

"It's a very tough show to cast because you're looking for people who are right in terms of their temperament, but who are also good puppeteers," Deer said. "It must be people who sing well and can dance and operate a puppet, and who can do multiple different characters and have the ability to act and sing like the characters in the 'Muppet Show' or 'Sesame Street.'"

Puppet connection

Although most productions of "Avenue Q" rent the puppets for the show, Dayton is doing it differently.

"Dayton has the Zoot Theater Company here, and the theater community in Dayton is a very tight group," Deer said. "So many people here work with each other in different ways, so this was a natural development."

Zoot's artistic director and puppet and mask builder Tristan Cupp has long-time connections to Human Race.

"Tristan started working for The Human Race in 2001 as our Head Carpenter -- and continued through 2012, when he went full time with Zoot Theatre," Moore said. "He and our technical director Scott Kimmins built all our shows over that 11 years. Prior to Human Race, he was technical director for Blue Jacket."

Copp, who built the puppets for the Human Race "Seussical" and for "The Knight of the Mirrors" scene in "Man of La Mancha," first saw "Avenue Q" in New York and says he immediately liked the "great storyline" and thought it would be a great show to do.

"They really needed to use puppets to say the kinds of things that a person couldn't get away with saying in terms of subject matter," said Cupp, 45, who grew up watching "The Muppets" and "Sesame Street."

All 25 puppets for "Avenue Q" were designed and hand built in Zoot's studio's downtown and were a bigger build than originally anticipated. The project has taken more than three months.

Cupp says the puppets are designed to suggest -- but not copy -- the original characters, but need to stay in the Muppet world. Some connections are obvious -- Cookie Monster is Trekkie Monster and Rod and Nicky are parodies of Bert and Ernie.

Cupp, who says he's not much of a fabric-and-scissors kind of guy and typically works with clay and wood, credits Zoot's main costumer Shirley Wasser and her team with much of the creative work. Because there is time for costume changes, in some cases more than one puppet had to be created for a certain role.

The challenge for the actors is learning this style of puppetry, he said.

"The actors have to work together with the puppet to make it into one person," Cupp explained.

Cupp suspects this won't be the end of his connection to "Avenue Q." For starters, he's planning to rent his puppets to other companies across the country who are staging the popular production.

"And I think in another five years when it has saturated the market, I would like to try doing different style puppets for the show, kind of a 'misfits of Avenue Q," he added.

Cast and production

The "Avenue Q" cast includes Andrew Ian Adams, Michelle Liu Coughlin, Annie Kalahurka, James Oblak, Katie Pees, Shawn Storms, Brett Travis and Michael Thomas Walker. Sean Michael Flowers is music director/conductor and Dick Block designed the sets. Janet Powell designed the costumes; John Rensel, the lighting, John S. Findley, the sound.

Not for kids

Deer wants to make sure everyone knows "Avenue Q" is definitely not a kiddie show but would be rated "R" or "PG-13."

"For me, it's the perfect date show. Audiences will love the idea of it, the humor, the music and dance, and will also love seeing the incredible skill of the actors. It's satisfying on so many levels."

Pees said audiences should expect to experience a range of emotions.

"'Avenue Q' is a hilarious, touching journey that has you laughing till your sides hurt and then almost tearing up with how real the characters situations are to our daily lives," Pees said.


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