Avenue Q, the new summer show now running at Trustus Theatre, is a lively, witty, naughty musical romp through the challenges of young adulthood in the big city, told via catchy, silly, bouncy songs, performed by puppets. Well, by live actors, four of whom give voice and life to a number of Muppet-style hand puppets. For sheer escapism and entertainment, you absolutely will not be disappointed by this triple Tony winner that ran for over six years in New York, and still thrives and prospers off-Broadway today.
With music and lyrics by creators Robert Lopez and Jeff Marx, and book by Jeff Whitty, Avenue Q follows the adventures of recent college grad Princeton, an archetypal naïf looking for his meaning in life... or perhaps just a job, and a cheap place to live, which he finds in the low-rent zone of Avenue Q. Princeton is Everyman (or Everypuppet) at 22, and this theme has been explored countless times over the years, in films like How to Marry a Millionaire, musicals like How to Succeed in Business, and even the current HBO series Girls. The show's brilliance lies in its reinvention of the coming-of-age genre, using multi-colored felt and cloth puppets, especially since the impression conveyed is that we are seeing the familiar Sesame Street characters all grown up, and having to confront the realities and responsibilities of maturity. A disclaimer in the program makes it clear that there is no actual connection to any Jim Henson creations or properties; one imagines that at this stage, Elmo, Kermit and friends are such cultural icons that they classify as public figures, and therefore fair game for parody and satire. Unlike the Muppets, however, the audience actually sees each performer skillfully manipulating his or her diminutive alter-ego, and so the relevant expressions and emotions are visible on the live actor's face as well. All are attractive and talented, causing one to want to follow them on stage, but just as much attention needs to be paid to the puppets, who are the actual characters.
Performing Princeton, Kevin Bush finds just the right tone to seem sympathetic, yet still a bit of an immature tool. A subplot revolving around an ambiguous pair of roommates (think Bert and Ernie) features Bush as Rod, an uptight and closeted yuppie banker whose nose and eye design are as phallic as his name. Rod's denial of his sexuality and feelings for his best friend become increasingly ludicrous, culminating in a stream-of-consciousness musical fabrication about an imaginary girlfriend, from Canada, named Alberta, who lives in... ummm... Vancouver. The ever-youthful Bush could really have played either of these roles quite believably in a "normal" play; I do wish there were a bit more distinction in their voices, especially since between the two characters, he has at least 50% of the dialogue in the show. Still, he's a great singer and a delight to see.
Katie Leitner as Princeton's love interest, Kate Monster, is equally appealing. Looking back over my notes, I see at least half a dozen times where she duets with Bush or joins in a group number, and I have jotted down "beautiful harmony" or "incredible voice." Her solo "Fine Fine Line" (a melancholy reflection on the difference between lovers and friends) could easily have been part of a "serious" musical, whereas most of the other songs replicate the sing-song style of a children's show. With no way to really change the facial expression of the hand puppets, emotions must be conveyed by adjusting their posture or position; somehow Leitner expertly manages to depict Kate Monster as a sloppy drunk, with her hair falling into her face, and the moment is one of many comic highlights. She also gets to create Lucy the Slut, who oozes mint-julep sultriness and temptation, with a rich deep voice an octave or so lower than Kate's. Brien Hollingsworth also displays amazing diversity in his voice characterizations as four different characters, including Trekkie Monster (addicted to porn in lieu of cookies) and Nicky, who accepts BFF Rod's sexuality long before Rod acknowledges it. Hollingsworth and Elisabeth Smith Baker perform Nicky together, and also appear as the Bad Idea Bears, Care Bear-like apparitions who suggest things like chugging Long Island Teas the night before an important day at work, or using funds sent from the 'rents to buy some beer, and it might as well be a case, since those are better bargains. Baker probably does the best at recreating the perky, cartoonish voices one expects, and also helps to manipulate most of the other puppet characters when their principal portrayers are busy, e.g. she performs Lucy's movements when Leitner is performing Kate. Through some skillful choreography and misdirection, rarely can one ever tell that the principal actor is doing both voices, and this also means that Baker has to know not only her own characters' lines, but most of the rest of the script too, in order to move the puppet's mouth at the right moment, in synch with the right dialogue. The other three performers accomplish this as well, but Baker is perhaps the best at turning invisible on stage, this being that rarest of times when that's a good thing. And did I mention that Princeton and Kate engage in some graphic puppet sex? Well, as graphic as hand puppets who only exist from the waist up can get, but that's incredibly, and hilariously, graphic.
Just like Sesame Street, there are human characters too, similarly disillusioned 20-somethings, played by G. Scott Wild, Annie Kim, and Devin Anderson. While these characters are never fully developed, the performers are excellent, and their voices blend beautifully with the rest of the cast. Director Chad Henderson brings the customary style that I have come to expect from his shows: everyone is completely believable in their characters, everything moves at a lively pace, and there's never a dull moment on stage, even in transitional moments and bridging scenes. Musical Director Randy Moore capably leads four other musicians and never once drowns out the singers. Danny Harrington's set is ostensibly a simplistic, child-like facade of an apartment row, but utilizes striking colors and odd angles (much like his recent set for Grease at Town Theatre) to make an attractive visual statement. Performers frequently have to make rapid exits in time to appear as another character in an upstairs window, and I'm guessing the true extent of Harrington's design can only be appreciated from backstage, as everything seems to flow quite smoothly. There's also a multi-media component, incorporating a tv-like screen that projects video clips (created by Aaron Johnson) and little visual lessons, in that same Sesame Street style. The excellent puppet creations are by Lyon Hill (profiled in the cover story of the current issue of Jasper - The Word on Columbia Arts) and Karri Scollon, the result of a collaboration between Trustus and the Columbia Marionette Theatre.
Trustus of course is at a crossroads, with new leadership coming in, and the ever-present challenge to stay true to their mission (edgy shows from NY that might not be done elsewhere locally) while giving the audiences what they want (which by and large is light, frothy, silly musical comedies.) Through some happy harmonic convergence, Avenue Q manages to do both simultaneously. The only caveats might be: a) however adorable the puppets may be, and however appealing the performers, the humor and language is decidedly R-rated, so consider yourself forewarned, or titillated in advance, as the case may be; and b) the score is quite catchy and eminently hummable, but no moreso (and no less) than any good Muppet Show song. As above, coming-of-age stories are nothing new, and have been depicted musically as recently as March's Passing Strange, which was wildly popular among most artists, musicians and theatre folks I know. For me, however, Avenue Q is the most entertaining production I've seen at Trustus in years, and certainly the best show I've seen locally since Victor/Victoria at Workshop some 15 months ago. Retelling fundamental and timeless themes using a new, unexpected, yet also familiar story-telling technique is simply a stroke of genius, and you owe it to yourself to take a trip down to Avenue Q.
Avenue Q runs through Sat. July 21st; contact the Trustus box office at 803-254-9732 for ticket information.
~ August Krickel
(Photo credit - Bonnie Boiter-Jolley)