Child’s play, it is not. Avenue Q, the Tony Award-winning musical that parodies Sesame Street while worshipping South Park, gets its first local professional production in the basement of Theatre Three. The venue’s close quarters ensure that the hilariously off-color jokes and truthful, poignant moments are right in your face, a welcome change from the cavernous space in which played the national tour that came through town two years ago.
Theatre Too has been transformed into an appropriately rundown New York City block, thanks to an incredibly detailed design by Jac Alder (watch for his clever cameo). Within that set, a mixture of puppets and human beings navigate the uncertainties of life with the help of adroitly crude songs, adults-only math and vocabulary lessons, and each other’s support.
Like Princeton, our leading-man puppet, I was 22 when I moved to New York City with little more than a suitcase and a seemingly useless B.A. (in theater—ha!). My address was in Hell’s Kitchen, admittedly a long way from the actual Avenue Q, but mere blocks from the Broadway theater where the sold-out show was playing. The musical’s rude humor, snarky dialogue, and nostalgic in-jokes obviously appealed to my youthful sensibilities, but the more serious themes of friendship, love, and taking those first tentative steps into adulthood resonated even more deeply. Avenue Q is a show that unexpectedly tugs at your heartstrings while reveling in its raunchiness.
While the puppets may serve as a conduit for taboo subjects and situations, such as graphic one-night-stands, jokes about racism, homelessness, porn, and questioning one’s sexuality, it’s the humans—both those controlling the puppets and those who simply exist within this twisted world—who make the show work.
Olivia de Guzman Emile and M. Denise Lee bring dimension and perfect comic timing to their roles as Japanese therapist Christmas Eve and Gary Coleman. Yes, that Gary Coleman. Both women embrace the offensiveness and go all-out in their characterizations, which results in numerous memorable lines and moments. Chester Maple is given less to work with as the unemployed comedian Brian, Christmas Eve’s fiancé, but that doesn’t prevent him from investing as much as possible in the affable loser.
Delivering what are essentially dual performances, the outstanding Megan Kelly Bates (Kate Monster/Lucy), James Chandler (Nicky and others), and Michael Robinson (Trekkie Monster and others) breathe life into their puppet counterparts without ever overshadowing them. Their vocal inflections are eerily reminiscent of the original production, but they still contribute enough individuality that the lines and songs feel fresh.
Matt Purvis, who controls Princeton and closeted Republican Rod, struggles from time to time with his notes, but the biggest frustration is how he often seems to forget that the show isn’t about him, but about the puppets. While the other performers find the ideal balance between puppet interaction and corresponding human facial expressions, Purvis often performs as though he has forgotten all about the felt character at the end of his arm.
Now about those puppets: Pix Smith and Michael Robinson of Dallas Puppet Theater created each one from scratch, and the superb quality is on par with that of the original production. Each puppet comes with several different “looks” and costume changes, and the continuity is no less impressive than the craftsmanship.
Taking the concept of a beloved children’s TV show and twisting it to suit a foul-mouthed, funny musical about puppets was a gamble for creators Robert Lopez and Jeff Marx (music and lyrics) and Jeff Whitty (book). That gamble paid off with a Best Musical Tony award in 2004 (it beat out Wicked) and a spot on the longest-running Broadway musicals list (it’s still going strong Off Broadway).
Taking that foul-mouthed, funny musical and presenting it to a mainstream Dallas audience is also a gamble. For director Michael Serrecchia, it’s a gamble that pays off handsomely; this will be the production that all future DFW Avenue Qs will be measured against.