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Taking a wrong turn at Sesame Street - ‘Avenue Q’

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Taking a wrong turn at Sesame Street - ‘Avenue Q’ Photo by Adam Kuykendall
UMaine presents a grown-up puppet musical
ORONO - From childhood, I’ve had an affinity for puppets. There’s a wonderful anarchy that puppets seem to inspire that can result in moments that are engaging and absurd at the same time. Throw in the element of music and the potential for joyful chaos is maximized. It’s the chance to create work that tells a story in a very unique way.

“Avenue Q,” the musical by Robert Lopez, Jeff Marz and Jeff Whitty, is that sort of work. A production of the Tony-winning show is currently being mounted by the University of Maine’s School of Performing Arts. The show is directed by Sandra Hardy and musically directed by Danny Williams; it is being performed in Hauck Auditorium and runs through Feb. 19.


It’s the story of a neighborhood - Avenue Q - in New York City. It’s a ramshackle, run-down place, populated by people who have struggled to make their way in the world. They include engaged couple Brian (Jason Pulley) and Christmas Eve (Janice Duy), roommates Rod (Jeremy Walsh) and Nicky (Ryan Jackson) and an assortment of other down-on-their-luck-types, including two monsters - Trekkie (Jackson McLaughlin) and Kate (Allison Smith). Oh, and Gary Coleman (Nestor Simon-Gonzalez) is the super.

With me so far?

Into this world wanders Princeton (Edward Benson), a recent college graduate with no job, no skills, a useless degree and a huge debt. He moves to Avenue Q because he can afford it, but he quickly becomes friends with his neighbors. He becomes especially close with Kate, and the two of them soon enter into a relationship. However, Princeton is obsessed with figuring out what his purpose in life is, which causes friction not only with Kate, but with his new friends on Avenue Q.

Think of “Avenue Q” as Sesame Street, only aimed at the person just ending his or her time in school rather than the one just beginning. It’s got all the pieces - the free intermingling of characters both puppet and human, with no distinction made between them; lessons being taught by the interactions between the various characters; songs that reinforced the lessons being put forth by the scenes - of classic Children’s Television Workshop formula.

Only it’s dirty. And awesome.

The story arc of Princeton and Kate is the foundation of the show, with everything else springing out of their relationship. Benson and Smith have a genuinely likeable chemistry, one that shines through even the layer of puppet between them. They create well-rounded characters - people with hopes and dreams, loves and fears - that just happen to be made out of felt.

Of course, that’s the case with just about every actor-puppeteer on stage. Walsh and Jackson are delightful as the Bert-and-Ernie-esque Rod and Nicky. Their relationship takes that familiar dynamic and amplifies it with hilarious results. The upstairs-dwelling, porn-obsessed Trekkie is played with goofy, growly enthusiasm by McLaughlin, while the Bad Idea Bears (played by Andrew Silver and Nellie Kelly) are a ray of sociopathic sunshine periodically appearing to guide Princeton down the wrong path.

However, there are some great performances in this show that don’t involve puppets at all. Duy and Pulley bring a warm antagonism to the relationship between Christmas Eve and Brian. These two help serve as a sort of anchor, keeping us locked into the reality of Avenue Q. And lest we forget…Gary Coleman. Gonzalez is a talented singer, to be sure, but what he’s done here is more than that. Yes, this Gary Coleman is intended as a caricature - and he is - but we still feel for him, even as we laugh. That’s due in no small part to Gonzalez’s performance.

And the songs. Oh, the songs. “It Sucks to Be Me;” “If You Were Gay;” “Everyone’s a Little Bit Racist;” “The Internet is for Porn;” “Schadenfreude” - the list goes on and on. These songs are clever and well-written while also being crass - the combination of musicality and attitude makes this one of the more entertaining shows I’ve seen in ages. And hearing puppets sing them? Magnificent.

Sandra Hardy has never been afraid to push the envelope, and this show is no exception. The goal of academic theater should be twofold; the students should learn something, and they should have fun. A show like “Avenue Q” succeeds on both counts. Hardy has created a bustling, albeit rundown city neighborhood, complete with homeless guys and beat cops. It’s a rich world that draws us in.

Williams and the band sound wonderful - the music isn’t particularly complex, but the small ensemble (there’s only half a dozen of them) creates a big, rich sound that underscores and holds aloft the performers onstage. And as far as production design, designers Dan Brunk (lighting) and Tricia Hobbs (scenic) nailed it. Brunk’s lights did well in capturing the constantly shifting moods of the show, while Hobbs created a stylized city block that was both aesthetically engaging and extremely functional.

Puppets cursing and songs about porn, people - do you really need me to tell you more than that?

 

‘Avenue Q’ will be playing at Hauck Auditorium on the campus of the University of Maine through Feb. 19. For tickets or more information, visit the School of Performing Arts website at umaine.edu/spa.

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