ONE: CHEAP THRILLS IF YOU BUY NOW. Maybe you’ve always wanted to see this Tony-winning musical anyway, or would like to see it again. Then by all means catch Stage 62’s rendition, playing through July 28. It’s a solid production—and in several respects a brilliant one—for under $20 per ticket.
But maybe you are not sold on the show itself. In that case, read on.
TWO: IT’S MORE THAN A ONE-TRICK PARODY. There are skeptics who’ve never seen Avenue Q yet think they know all about it. “Oh yeah, that’s the takeoff on ‘Sesame Street,’” they say. Which indeed it is. Instead of Cookie Monster, the show has a giant puppet called Trekkie Monster, addicted not to cookies but to Internet pornography. Instead of catchy lesson songs for children, such as “Put Down the Duckie,” Avenue Q has songs like “It Sucks to Be Me” and “You Can Be as Loud as the Hell You Want When You’re Makin’ Love.”
And yes, to a large extent, the show’s humor rides on shock factor. It is more, however, than a single-gimmick send-up. The writers did more than build a bunch of gags around the narrow premise of “Hey, wouldn’t it be a hoot to do an R-rated ‘Sesame Street’?”
Avenue Q borrows the ‘Sesame Street’ meme and expands upon it in a captivatingly cool way. Taking some basic features of that meme—the cast of characters living on an imaginary street, the goofy Muppet-y puppets, the lesson songs—it literally “sends up” those features into the realm of adulthood, where they really “take off,” because, amazingly, they fit.
The real shock factor comes when you realize that waking the echoes of childhood is a pretty neat way to look at the perplexities of adult life, because, after all, we’re still just children trying to grow up.
THREE: THE SONGS WORK. “Everyone’s a Little Bit Racist” may be politically incorrect but Avenue Q presents the idea for consideration. And “If You Were Gay (That’d Be Okay)” is one of the funniest little ditties about a serious, life-defining subject to be found in show biz. And then there’s “The More You Love Someone (The More You Want to Kill Him)”…well, I could go on and on, but let’s look at how the songs are done.
FOUR: THE PUPPETS WORK. Most adults think puppets are stupid. On first glance, the puppets in Avenue Q may seem not only stupid but also unnecessary. They’re carried and manipulated by live actors, who voice the puppets’ lines and songs without even trying to keep their own lips from moving. One may ask: why bother?
The answer is: what’s going on here is LIVE ANIMATION. With puppets, you can do things that human actors can’t do. If cast members Matt Augustyniak and Laura Barnetta were to enact frantic, naked sex in half-a-dozen positions, it either wouldn’t be convincing, or it might bring in the police to shut down the show. When they make their puppets do it, it’s hilarious.
Or, watch the song-and-dance number in which puppet Nicky sings “If You Were Gay (That’d Be Okay)” to the puppet Rob, who is closeted and in denial. Nicky’s operators (Joey Frollo, with help from Ryan McGrogan) are able to give their puppet a wacky, good-natured exuberance of movement that brings the song to life—and would only look painfully hokey if anyone short of Groucho Marx tried it.
FIVE: THE BAD IDEA BEARS ARE GREAT. These two cuddly-bear puppets (Becki Toth and Chad Elder) might be the biggest scream in the show. The Bad Idea Bears embody the childishly insane thoughts that take hold of us at the worst possible times. In certain scenes in Avenue Q, a character has to make an important decision or behave responsibly for a change. Out come the Bears like a Greek chorus from Beanie Baby Hades, pleading and cajoling, with their perfectly logical arguments about why it makes perfect sense to do exactly the wrong thing.
Dear readers, a personal disclosure. I can relate.
SIX: THE HOUSE IS GOOD. Speaking personally again, I like the big downtown theaters, except when I have to watch a touring production of a stage play from the so-called cheap seats. There, one feels remote from the action, because one is. Stage 62 performs in a right-sized space, the Music Hall of the Carnegie Free Library of Carnegie, Pa. The Music Hall is intimate enough for one to experience live theater as it should be. Which brings us to our final reason …
SEVEN: MASTERY OF THE MATERIAL. “Animating” puppets as done in Avenue Q may be easier than channeling Groucho, but it’s not easy. The knack is quite difficult for actors to learn. You can’t just act. You have to make the puppet act. If it’s a puppet operated by two actors, you have to do it in synch with your partner. You also have to do it with unflagging energy, and keep the puppet in character, so that the puppet acts like a person, only more so.
Stage 62, one of the region’s best community theater companies, pulls off the feat nicely. I especially was taken by the puppets and puppeteer-actors cited above, as well as by—and very largely by—Trekkie Monster (Rob James, with Ryan McGrogan).
There are some slippages here and there: times when you are drawn to start watching the actor instead of the actor’s puppet, which is not desirable. But those times are few.
As a whole, this show works. You barely even notice that a few actors are just being their characters, with no puppets at all, as the script requires. Those humans fit right in. We are a highly adaptable species, are we not?
Forget the plot summary. You’ll get it as it unfolds and will enjoy it more that way. In addition to actors mentioned, the cast includes Andy Coleman, Joey Moser, Natalie Hatcher, and Sara Barbisch. Natalie plays Gary Coleman (no relation to Andy) straight up, without a puppet, and you have got to see her dance.
Huge credit goes to the puppetry consultant on this show, Julianne Avolio, and to the puppet designer, Russ Walko. The director is Stephen Santa. Avenue Q, which won the 2004 Tony for Best Musical, was written by Robert Lopez, Jeff Marx, and Jeff Whitty.
Thursday to Saturday, July 18 – 20 and 25-27 at 8 p.m.
Sun. Matinees July 21 and 28 at 2 p.m.
Rated R for Adult language and content
Stage 62 is the community theater-in-residence of the Andrew Carnegie Free Library & Music Hall.
300 Beechwood Ave., Carnegie
For ticket information go to Stage62.com
Photos courtesy of Stage 62 and Friedman Wagner-Dobler.
Mike Vargo, an experienced, longtime writer based in Pittsburgh, has himself performed on stage but “not very well,” he says. So he sticks to writing about it.