News Column

'Avenue Q': A puppet musical that's not for kids

June 7, 2013

YellowBrix

June 07--On paper, "Sesame Street" and "Avenue Q" aren't that different. They're both urban neighborhoods that cute, fuzzy puppets call home. They're both places brimming with fun musical numbers. And there's no doubt that you'll learn valuable life lessons hanging out on both streets.

On "Avenue Q," however, the lessons won't deal with counting or sharing -- unless it involves a case of beers. They'll address how "everyone's a little bit racist" or how the Internet largely is used to look up pornography.

These are life lessons, indeed. Unflinchingly honest, hysterically funny life lessons.

"It's so honest that you can't be mad," says Jeremy Eaton, director of Robidoux Resident Theatre's upcoming production of "Avenue Q," which will be performed from June 13 to 16 at Robidoux Landing Playhouse.

While many plays presented in St. Joseph either skew toward older audiences (think "South Pacific" and "Seven Brides for Seven Brothers") or cater to kids (like "The Little Mermaid," "Chitty Chitty Bang Bang" and "Annie"), "Avenue Q" will connect best with that young adult and middle-aged audience in between. Eaton expects the play to be popular with audiences who usually don't buy tickets to theater productions in St. Joe.

"In addition to the musical theater crowd, it also reaches and speaks to the crowd that says, 'The musical's not for me,'" he says. "It's too funny. I have a feeling the people that never go to musicals will go to this one. Like, my dad."

The musical's upcoming run will be the first in St. Joseph, just a decade removed from the massive success of the Broadway production. "Avenue Q" opened at the John Golden Theatre in July 2003 and immediately captivated theater-goers with its adult themes, clever humor, surprisingly good music and a whole lot of heart. After more than 2,500 regular performances, "Avenue Q" finally ended its Broadway run in September of 2009, grossing more than $117 million along the way.

Critics loved it, too. With music and lyrics penned by Robert Lopez and Jeff Marx (former interns for Jim Henson) and a book written by Jeff Whitty, "Avenue Q" would go on to win the triple crown at the Tony Awards in 2004, bringing home trophies for Best Musical, Best Book of a Musical and Best Original Score. Director Jason Moore and cast members John Tartaglia and Stephanie D'Abruzzo also were nominated.

Some loved the play for its approach toward taboo humor. Others loved the journey of a community of puppets genuinely searching for their own purpose, even if they made some mistakes along the way.

"It's a very good, well-written show," says Caleb Hazelwood, who lends voice and movement to the puppets Princeton and Rod in RRT's production. "We're able to do more things and push the envelope because the writing is so good."

Hazelwood describes the role of Princeton as "a dream," one that the young actor had sought for a few years after seeing a production of "Avenue Q" at the International Thespians Festival. That sentiment is shared by his co-star, Hillary Holt, who plays Princeton's love interest, Kate, as well as Lucy, Avenue Q's resident hussy. In fact, the roles meant so much to them that both college students made the trip nearly every night for two months -- Hazelwood from Warrensburg, Mo.; Holt from Liberty, Mo. -- just to attend rehearsals.

Hazelwood says he always was drawn to Princeton because the character is striking out on his own in the big city. In his eyes, Princeton's a good guy, but he's also naive and easily swayed.

"I enjoy him the most because of how much he gets to learn on stage and how much hilarity ensues because of that," Hazelwood says.

Princeton, a recent college grad with a useless "B.A. in English," moves to Avenue Q after failing to find a more affordable apartment on Avenues A through P. In minutes, the audience is introduced to his neighbors: Kate Monster (Holt), a kindergarten teaching assistant hoping for a full-time teaching gig; Rod (Hazelwood), an uptight Republican banker who everyone suspects is gay; Nicky (Erik Burns-Sprung), Rod's slacker roommate; Brian (Joshua Locke), an aspiring stand-up comedian recently laid off from his day job; Christmas Eve (Katie Gregory), Brian's Japanese fiancee who's a struggling therapist; Trekkie Monster (Burns-Sprung), a grumpy recluse who spends his days watching Internet porn; and Gary Coleman (Dansare Marks), the building's sassy superintendent.

Although Princeton was his dream role, Hazelwood says he's having more fun with Rod's voice inflection and the little nuances of that character. In fact, he says that Rod provides some of the most heartfelt and heartbreaking moments of the play as he struggles with his sexuality.

"Everyone else is looking for their identity. Rod knows who he is, but he has no idea how to express himself," Hazelwood says. "That's usually why he's this big blue puppet with this panic-stricken expression."

Like Hazelwood, Holt is finding that she's having more fun with her "other" role. When playing the loose Lucy, Holt says she gets to unleash another part of her personality that usually doesn't get out much.

"It really is so fun to play the good girl and then the villain," Holt says. "It's never too far with her. She can do whatever she wants because she's slutty and she gets away with it."

Eaton says the cast has overcome every challenge in front of them, although some were easier than others. Hazelwood and Holt both admit that taking a backseat to the puppets they're standing behind on stage was a hard thing to do.

"You're not the focus at all. Here, it's better to make someone else the star, and for actors and our egos, that can be kind of hard," she says with a laugh.

"I think I might get the most notes about it," Hazelwood adds. "My training on stage is to be a big presence and sometimes I'll notice that the puppet is inactive and I'm taking the spotlight. That's when I have to remember, 'They came to see the orange creature on my hand.'"

Other than one or two slightly modified words, RRT's adaptation of "Avenue Q" will be a wholly faithful one. Favorite musical numbers like "You Can Be as Loud as the Hell You Want (When You're Makin' Love)," "The Internet is For Porn" and "If You Were Gay" won't be cut in any way. Eaton says they've put a little extra emphasis on the prejudice that the monster race feels, but other than that, this is "Avenue Q" the way it was meant to be.

"I tried to keep it as true as I could with an 8-foot ceiling," he laughs.

Shows on June 13, 14 and 15 will begin at 7:30 p.m. with dinner served at 6:30 p.m. The final show on June 16 will begin at 2 p.m. with lunch served at 12:30 p.m. For more information or to purchase tickets, call Robidoux Resident Theatre at 232-1778 or visit rrtstjoe.org.

Shea Conner can be reached at shea.conner@newspressnow.com. Follow him on Twitter: @stjoelivedotcom.

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