By Judith Cookis Rubens
The Tony Award-winning “Avenue Q,” a satirical puppet musical about tolerance and life in the big city, is still going strong on Broadway. With last year’s national tour launch, the show’s politically incorrect humor (and full-puppet nudity) seemed poised to capture even more fans.
Still, show creators hadn’t ventured into smaller communities – until now.
On Jan. 18, “Avenue Q” makes its community theater debut in Kalamazoo. The city’s Civic Theatre was chosen to produce a pilot version that could be eventually licensed to community theaters nationwide. Considering the show’s adult topics – racism, pornography and homosexuality, among others – the community theater version features toned-down language, but essentially the same plot and musical numbers.
Music Theatre International, a New York-based licensing house for Broadway and off-Broadway shows, teamed up with “Avenue Q” creators to create a version that could play in schools and community theaters. While seeking feedback on the script from large community theaters, MTI officials were intrigued by Civic artistic director Morrie Enders’ notes. Enders thought some of the changes watered down the show’s impact. Instead of changing the F-word to “ugh,” why not say “shit”? Enders wondered.
“I wanted to stay truer to the original version,” Enders says. “We want to push the envelope in the community as much as we can without being fired.”
His open-minded approach appealed to MTI, which picked Kalamazoo to be its test audience for the show, which runs Jan. 18-Feb. 2 at the Civic’s Parish Theatre. MTI representatives will attend a performance to see how it plays.
The show, which won the 2004 Tony Award for Best Musical, is a send up of children’s classics like “Sesame Street,” laced with the adult humor of “South Park.” In it, recent college graduate, Princeton, makes his home on New York City’s fictional low-rent Avenue Q. The street is home to such odd characters as Internet addict, Trekkie Monster, and roommates Nicky, who is straight, and Rod, a closet gay (a thinly veiled laugh at Bert and Ernie).
“People say it’s a dirty puppet show…but there’s a heck of a lot more once you get there,” says Enders.
Most of central characters are puppets, operated by actors onstage. There are also a few human characters, which interact directly with the puppets.
Casting proved tricky, as most auditioning community theater actors had little to no puppeteering experience. In a great stroke of luck, Kalamazoo native and Emmy-winning designer/puppeteer Cheryl Blaylock – a former regular on PBS’ “Sesame Street” in the ’80s – was looking for a project that would bring her back to her hometown.
“We were very lucky to get Cheryl,” Enders says. “She’s teaching them how to make the puppets act, not just teaching them where to put their hands.”
“We can work on puppetry skills with them if they’re good actors,” says Blaylock, a New Yorker whose credits also include TV’s “Blue’s Room” and the “Muppets Take Manhattan” film.
The Civic will use brand new puppets that MTI built with input from the show’s creators. In the future, community theaters would, like the Civic, be responsible for building their own set (generally a backdrop of Avenue Q’s tenement-style buildings), but rent the puppets from New York.
“Avenue Q” creators have insisted there’s no connection to “Sesame Street” or the Jim Henson Company, even though both shows used puppets to teach life lessons.
Blaylock, who studied closely with Jim Henson, believes her late boss would have approved of the show. “I think he would have liked it,” she says.