By Bridgette M. Redman
As overused as it is, the f-bomb has little power to shock and awe in the theater today – unless it is coming out of the mouth of a cute, furry puppet. Then it still has a shred of shock value left.
It is the combination of shock, satire and a willingness to take a joke as far as it can go that has made “Avenue Q” popular amongst the newer generation of theater goers, theater goers who can relate to unemployment, confusion over sexuality, breakups, too many bills and an inability to find one’s purpose.
It is also a show that is smart, funny and filled with memorable music – all of which the performers at Saugatuck’s Mason Street Warehouse made the most of in their opening night show. While there were a few technical difficulties with microphones, the actors showed great skill at manipulating puppets and displaying great energy in their interactions and dancing.
“Avenue Q” mixes human and puppet characters, with some of the puppets being “human” and others being monsters. They live on Avenue Q in New York City, a run-down neighborhood filled with people who are trying to survive the problems of daily live. Princeton, a puppet played by Joe Carroll, is newly arrived after earning a bachelor’s degree in English. The puppet Kate Monster, played by Courtney Stokes, soon falls in love with him.
There are plenty of conceits in this show to make the puppetry believable, most of which those who grew up on “Sesame Street” will readily adapt to, for yes, “Avenue Q” is “Sesame Street” for cynical grown-ups. While the puppeteers are always visible and provide facial reactions to support the words of the puppets, the human actors always directly address the puppets.
The puppet work of the actors is impressive – especially for those like Stokes who must quickly switch from Kate Monster to Lucy the Slut and sometimes performs a scene where she is talking to herself. In those cases she uses such tricks as holding the puppet in front of her face so the attention is on the two puppets rather than watching her switch expressions back and forth. Stokes did sometimes fall out of her Kate Monster voice when singing for the puppet, but those times were rare and most of her performance was excellent.
Carroll, who also played Rod, the closeted investment banker who is an imitation of “Sesame Street”‘s Bert, was outstanding in his performances of the two characters. He created very different voices for both, and his singing was strong and clear.
Sean Patrick Fawcett and Christine Bunuan had great chemistry as the engaged and later married couple of Brian and Christmas Eve. They were consistently funny, and Bunuan never failed to elicit laughter with her energetic movement and gestures and exaggerated accents.
“Avenue Q” is a show that is difficult to perform technically, in no small part because it is a fast-paced show that relies on sharp timing and good video, lighting and sound work. The actors must be able to maintain high energy, move quickly with puppets and hit humorous lines with conviction. While those who have seen the Broadway or touring productions may find some of the Mason Street Warehouse production’s choices different and in some cases more rushed, they’ll find nothing lacking in energy, fun and skill. Seven of the eight performers are Equity, and it shows in the talent all of them bring to the stage.
This production creates an entertaining evening at the theater that is smart, funny and thoroughly modern.
Mason Street Warehouse, 400 Culver St., Saugatuck. Tuesday-Sunday through July 15, plus Monday, July 2. 125 minutes. $26-$39.75. 269-857-2399. http://www.masonstreetwarehouse.org