In the Tony Award-winning musical “Avenue Q,” no topic is too taboo to skewer: race relations, poverty, religion, sexuality, politics, pornography. That’s nothing new – shows like “Rent” and “Spring Awakening” have tackled most of the same issues – but the twist here is that a majority of the characters are puppets, cheerful-looking but gleefully vulgar cloth-and-felt creations that would likely get evicted if they moved onto Sesame Street.
“Avenue Q,” which beat “Wicked” for the Best Musical Tony in 2004, is one of the longest-running shows in Broadway history, but it’s just now making its Inland Northwest community theater premiere at Lake City Playhouse. Why the delay? George Green, LCP’s artistic director, said the complicated production – it requires about a dozen puppets, all of which are operated by the actors onstage – and the risqué content have prevented “Avenue Q” from becoming a community theater staple.
Frankly, he said, a lot of theater companies tend to get cold feet if there’s a possibility of upsetting their audience.
“I’ve seen people get offended by all sorts of things, and I’m sure that’s what steers most theaters away,” Green said. “They’re worried about losing patrons, about losing ticket holders, maybe even sponsors. … If an artist is intentionally trying to offend someone, they’re making a very poor business choice. That should never be the goal. The goal is to present information that’s thoughtful and insightful, that will drive conversation and have our community evolve and think.”
Troy Nickerson, who is directing LCP’s production of “Avenue Q,” says that he can’t spend time second guessing the material, trusting that audiences aren’t wandering blindly into a show that is famously ribald.
“I can’t worry about that,” he said. “I have to focus on what I think is right for the show, and how people take that on and how they react to it is up to them.”
So don’t say you haven’t been warned: “Avenue Q” might be a puppet show, but its salty language, sexual content, dicey subject matter and raunchy humor make it suitable for adults only. Imagine a public television kids’ show as reimagined by John Waters or Trey Parker.
Our hero is a recent college graduate named Princeton, who moves into a rundown apartment building on the titular street because the rent on Avenues A through P is too high. The show has a loose structure following the tenants’ conflicts, frustrations and setbacks, including Princeton’s troubled romance with aspiring teacher Kate Monster and a conservative banker struggling to come out of the closet.
One of the more interesting aspects of “Avenue Q” is its treatment of the puppeteers, who are always in full view, and part of the appeal of seeing the show live is to witness the relationship between the puppets and their operators.
“They become one in the sense that you’re watching the puppet, but the human is still supplying the emotion,” Nickerson said. “If the actor’s acting too hard, or if he’s not giving enough energy to the puppet, he’s upstaging his puppet and you start focusing on the actor. It’s a tricky balance to find where that lies so that the magic happens.”
The show’s songs were penned by Robert Lopez, best known for his award-winning work on the film “Frozen” and the Broadway phenomenon “The Book of Mormon,” and Jeff Marx, and they’re as irrepressibly sunny as they are unapologetically vulgar. There’s something inherently hilarious about tunes with titles such as “Everyone’s a Little Bit Racist,” “The Internet is for Porn” and “If You Were Gay” being sung by characters who look like G-rated creations from Jim Henson’s workshop. It’s that disparity between performer and material that makes “Avenue Q” such a transgressive delight.
But the show isn’t just about laughing at puppets saying inappropriate things. There are, like in your typical episode of “Sesame Street,” lessons to be learned, even if they’re approached in a more provocative way.
“If we can laugh at ourselves, it’s easier to accept these things about ourselves,” Nickerson said. “The thing about the puppets is that you can go so much farther. I don’t know if a group of people in some of these moments could get away with what the puppets are doing. It’s a strange thing.”
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