When I was a kid growing up in South-Central Montana, just a stone’s throw from Colorado and the creators of “South Park”, I dreamt of a world where the profane, perverse baby voice that I practiced in the parking lot of the local IGA would someday find a voice. Then, as now, the idea of a child or childlike object spouting the darker aspects of humanity was at once funny and disturbing to passersby. I got some very strange looks from the old ladies walking in to do their shopping as my little baby voice spouted out things that would make my physics teacher, who had just spent a summer on board a NOAA vessel, blush. As things progressed and I became more and more interested in the theatre as an art form, I noticed that certain things were becoming acceptable; things that were unthinkable in the isolated upper midwest were finding a foothold in far off New York City.
“Avenue Q,” first produced in 2003, captured the spirit of a depressed and newly vulnerable nation. Puppets were racist, misogynist, serial masturbators who had degrees and fully realized sex lives. The foil for humanity, the puppet, was a safe avenue for the expression of the darker feelings that had lain under the surface and were boiling up, finally, in the face of a growing war on terror and the erosion of civil liberties under the Bush administration. This all may seem to be high-flown rhetoric, but “Avenue Q” found an audience in NYC that craved an outlet. If puppets are calling each other racist and saying it is ok, if the childhood dreams of Sesame Street and people coexisting with Muppets could be a reality, wouldn’t it be more fun if they were more like us? Music Theatre of Denton secured the Regional Premier for Amateur Production rights, Theatre Three is producing the musical in the coming months, and MTD found their audience opening night with an almost packed house. This production doesn’t suffer on the technical side. The set and lighting both serve their parts in this production and it is easy to imagine the apartments on any street peopled by both puppets and humans. Puppets, rented, are present and as raunchy as expected; some of the puppets even seem to be channeling their professional lineage by sounding as close to the Broadway production as possible. Trekkie, voiced by Ted Minette, is perhaps most guilty of cribbing from the cast recording. Perverted and lively, hearing what amounts to character theft come from the mouth of a puppet may be a sort of homage to the original production, in this case it comes across as what the majority of the performers in this production do: present a reasonable facsimile of what many in the audience had already seen in NYC.
For some audience members, this isn’t a problem. For me, the shining performances came from actors that created their own versions of the characters. Kate Monster, voiced sweetly by Nikki Cloer, is perhaps the most genuine of the puppet characters. Cloer’s puppet voice was spot on, her face, while not distracting from her big, pink persona, was interesting to watch as the emotions of the character were played out. Not so with her love interest Princeton. Voiced by Matt Purvis, Princeton was flat and emotionless. The highs and lows of the character were seemingly vacant from Purvis’ face and it was difficult to focus on the story when the performer so clearly wasn’t present. As disappointing as this was, the lack of character was more than made up for in two of the human characters. Olivia Emile, playing the equivalent of an Asian Jim Crow, was fantastic. Her portrayal of Christmas Eve, the harpy wife of the average Brian (played by Eric Ryan), Emile played with the careful balance between forcing a stereotype and finding something in her character that was redeemable. Numbers like “The More You Ruv Someone” and “It Sucks To Be Me” were well served by Emile’s powerful voice. She was joined in this regard by Erica Cole (Gary Coleman) and Kelsey Macke (Lucy The Slut). All three of these performers raised the level of the show from mediocre to good, anytime one of them was onstage, the energy of the production jumped to a new level. Cole’s “You Can Be as Loud as the Hell You Want (When You're Makin' Love)" channeled the recently passed Etta James and Whitney Houston both. As Gary Coleman, Cole was clearly enjoying herself and she was perhaps the most comedic of the human characters. Macke positively exuded sexuality, as much as a puppet can, and made her number one of the highlights of the first act.
One of the other standout puppet performances came from Chris Jordan as Rod, the sexually repressed, closeted gay puppet. Jordan clearly loved performing and it made his character one that I kept hoping would come back on stage. Following closely behind, the Bad Idea Bears bear mention. Travis Turek and Anna Marie Boyd were hilarious as the...bad angels that Princeton has on his shoulders.
Jordan’s love for the opportunity to portray a character in “Avenue Q” is one of the elements that makes community theatre so appealing when it comes to avocational actors. Rather than looking at the performance as a step to something much bigger, each of these actors had the opportunity to step outside of their daily grind and transport themselves and the audience to a place where a puppet can say “Fuck you!!” and the things that a large majority of the audience would never utter are heard in full volume from the stage. Director, Bill Kirkley, did an admirable job with his cast, moments were just long enough and the flow of the production never slowed. Perhaps one moment that should be mentioned, passing hats during “The Money Song” completely pulled the audience out of the production. Lights were brought up and while the actors were singing and dancing (if choreographer Stephanie Felton’s work could be called dancing), the audience was digging in purses and wallets to fill the hats coming around.
Overall, this production will not disappoint the avid fan of “Avenue Q” (I saw at least two T-shirts from the London production walking around), neither will it disappoint a complete nube (in which category I will admit to being). The strength of the show comes in the script and in the shining moments that are brought to you by the letters S-c-h-a-d-e-n-f-r-e-u-d-e. Taking comfort in the suffering of others, be they puppets or your-fellow- man adequately states the purpose of this musical. You won’t suffer if you see this production, you may just not come away with all the comfort the writers would like.
“Avenue Q” continues it’s run through 11 March. Tickets are going fast, reserve yours at here.