Revisiting a Puppet Neighborhood

Avenue Q (Repertory East)userpic=repeastBack in 2004, a new musical (not based on a previous property) by a new composing team (Robert Lopez and Jeff Marx) and a new book writer (Jeff Whitty) won the hearts of Broadway. It featured puppets — something that hadn’t been on Broadway since the days of Flahooley (1951) and Carnival! (1961) — and these puppets were major characters. It featured obscenities in the text, nudity on stage, and songs about the virtues of pornography. It took advantage of the fact that puppets† can often say and do things on stage that would be unacceptable if said by normal human characters in a normal context. It was groundbreaking. It went on to win numerous Tony awards; and one of its composers, Robert Lopez, went on to compose for the Tony-winning The Book of Mormon and the mega-hit Frozen. If you haven’t figured it out by now, the musical in question was Avenue Q, currently on the stage at Repertory East Playhouse [REP] (FB) in Newhall.
(† A fact also true of science fiction, which is why Star Trek could tell the stories it did)

We first saw Avenue Q in 2007 at the Ahmanson Theatre (FB). Big theatre — seating over 2,000. We were sitting far away from the stage, and the puppets were very small. The show still mesmerized, but the actors blended together for — at a distance — you could see the puppet faces but not the actors.

Last night (if you hadn’t figured it out by now), we saw Avenue Q at REP. Small theatre — 81 seats. We were in the front row, up close and personal with the puppets. This is a very different experience, and one that allows you to see the performance in a very different light. You might not think Avenue Q would work in an intimate theatre setting, but it does; in fact, it works very well and gives a very different experience.

For those not familiar with Avenue Q, you might think: “Ah, muppet-stype puppets. It must be good for kids.” This isn’t a kids show; it’s barely a teens show. This is an adult show, and it presents themes and concepts to which post-college adults will relate. It makes visible the disillusionment that faces a newly minted college grad. It shows that post-college life is hard and often not a bed of roses. It shows that bad ideas, while sounding good, can get us into trouble. It shows that relationships can be difficult and frustrating. But at its heart it is a hopeful music, arguing that any set back or disillusionment is only temporary, and that you will get through it.

The story of Avenue Q can be found easily on sites like Wikipedia. It basically concerns fresh-out graduate Princeton ending up on Avenue Q in an outer-outer borough of New York, because that’s what he can afford. He rents a room from the superintendent, Gary Coleman, and gets to know the other inhabitants of the street: Rod, an uptight investment banker and his roommate, Nicky (modeled after Bert and Ernie on Sesame Street); Brian and his fiancee Christmas Eve, an out of work comic and an out of work therapist; Kate Monster, a kingergarten TA; and Trekkie Monster, who has an Internet obsession. Princeton quickly loses  his job, and decided to find his purpose in life. Along the way, he falls in love with Kate, makes bad decisions (egged on by the Bad News Bears), sleeps with the local slut (Lucy T. Slut), and… never finds his purpose. Similarly, the other characters deal with the decisions in their life — good and bad — and illustrate a lot of foibles of modern society — Internet porn, lurking racism, closeted homosexuality — in ways that make the message hit home.

The songs in Avenue Q are some of my favorites, simply because of the depth of meaning behind some of them. I particularly like “The More You Ruv Someone” and “I Wish I Could Go Back To College” for their poignancy. The former — which stripped of its language stereotype could be a wonderful torch song — reflects the fact that love isn’t always the sweetness and light you see in the movies; that in real life, your lover sometime infuriates you and frustrates you and makes you want to kill them — but that fact that you don’t is what makes it love. The latter reflects something everyone feels — that adult life is far too hard, and that it would be so nice to go back to the those carefree college days, but you can’t. Two other favorite songs I like because of the upbeat tunes and the truth behind the songs: “Everyone’s a Little Bit Racist” and “The Internet is for Porn”. Both reflects facts of life that people refuse to admit; however, admitting them is actually very freeing and makes you realize that in your faults, you’re no different than anyone else.

Let’s turn to the characters and to the performances. Many of the characters in this show are puppets, either single-rod, double-rod, or live hand. There is no attempt to hide the actors manipulating and voicing the puppets — they are visible, with visible faces, simply wearing black clothing. The only “face” characters — humans that play their characters — are Brian, Christmas Eve, and Gary Coleman. So before we go into the actors, let’s look at the puppets. For this show, REP rented the puppets, which were designed by Sean Harrington, a scenic designer for another group we like, Actors Rep of Semi (FB). He created the puppets via Kickstarter for ARTS, and rents them through his wife’s organization, 1STAGE Repertory (FB) (a Childrens Theatre Group).‡ You can see what the puppets looked like on his rental site. Evidently, the Broadway designer, Rick Lyons, either doesn’t license his puppet designs (or didn’t license them at the time of puppet production), so the look of the puppet’s reflects Sean’s conception of the characters. Mostly, they worked well. I wasn’t that crazy about the look of Kate Monster as the color and length of the monster fur was a little bit off, and the look of Nicky gave off much less of an Ernie vibe, but overall they worked satisfactory. At times, when the performers were belting, the mouths of the puppets weren’t opening quite as wide — I don’t know if this is a construction artifact or an actor/puppet coordination artifact. In any case, it was truly a minor nit. I will note that the show had a different feel when you are up-close and personal with the puppets, an order of magnitude distance difference from the Ahmanson (10 vs 100 feet).
(‡: See, I do research these write-ups.)

One of the distinct advantages of being up close and personal is that you can see the actors — and at that distance, you can see that the actors are much more than puppet manipulators. These actors are playing and living the characters — often multiple characters — while just not in the puppet costume. Imagine the puppets with the actors’ faces, expressions and enthusiasm, and you know what I mean. The two meld into one in your mind. This is the magic of theatre — and what makes it even more magical was the quality of the REP cast. In the lead character positions were Nic Olsen (FB) voicing/manipulating Princeton and Rod, and Kristen Heitman (FB) voicing/manipulating Kate Monster and Lucy. Nic is himself a fresh-out and new to the LA stages; he brings that fresh-out spirit and enthusiasm to the character of Princeton and really blended with the character with a great performance. Watch his face during the show if you don’t believe me. He has a lovely voice and was very enjoyable in his numbers. I was even more taken with Kristen, who we’ve seen before on the REP stage (notably Caberet in 2011 and Trailer Park in 2012). I was blown over by her perkiness and vocal quality back then, and I was blown over last night. Again, she melds with the perkiness of Kate Monster and gives a wonderful acting performance and an outstanding vocal performance. Just watch her face during “The Internet is For Porn”, and you’ll see what I mean. About the only minor problems were some sound misdirection when she was manipulating one character and voicing another, and I’m sure that’s an artifact of our sitting close, and some minor puppet mouth timings. All that shows is that puppets are hard to manipulate… but as I was mesmerized by her face, it didn’t matter :-).

The three main human characters are Donna Marie Sergi (FB) as Christmas Eve, Jeremiah Lowder (FB) as Brian, and Chanel Edwards-Frederick (FB) as Gary Coleman. Let’s start with the newcomer to the REP stage, another fresh-out, Chanel Edwards-Frederick. Despite one or two line problems, quickly recovered, she blew me away with her vocal performance and her acting. Chanel has a wonderful gospel voice, and I hope she finds more shows in which she can showcase it. Just listen to her in “Schadenfreude”, and you’ll see what I mean. We’ve seen both Donna Marie and Jeremiah before. Donna Marie was wonderful (as always) and seemed to be having fun with her stereotyped character. She gave a great performance in “The More You Ruv Someone”, when you could hear hints of her real vocal quality over the character; this was also apparent when she was singing near us. Jeremiah, who wore many hats in this show (although he didn’t manipulate puppets, he served as music director and did the video designs), was fun and affable as Brian.

Rounding out the major characters on the street was Nick Echols (FB), who voiced/manipulated Nicky, Trekkie Monster, and numerous others. As Nicky, he gave a good performance capturing the character well on his face, although not being fully “Earnie”-ish in his voice (not necessarily a bad thing, as Nicky isn’t Earnie, but the echo is nice). Trekkie was performed well (although he could have been a bit clearer in “The Internet is For Porn”); when doing Trekkie, one tends not to see the actor’s face.

The two remaining cast members, Allison Lindsey Williams (FB) and Ryan Shrewsbury (FB), covered numerous characters, and often provided backup manipulation to major characters when the primary actor was handling a different major character. In those roles they were silent, although their faces were wonderfully expressive. They got to speak when they were voicing the Bad News Bears. I’ll particularly note one performer here: Ms. Williams. It was nice to see her again; we last saw her in Sex and Education at The Colony Theatre (FB), which was one of my most impactful shows of 2014. I’ll also note that the kids voices on the videos were provided by the O’s Executive Director’s lovely daughter, Isabelle.

The production was directed by Todd Larsen (FB), who presumably did the choreography and movement as well. Larsen did a great job of bringing out the expressiveness of the actors while they were manipulating the puppets. He also integrated the puppet movement well particularly given the limited development time for intimate theatre. Some small improvements in coordination between puppet speech and human speech could be done here, but this is something that I think will improve through the run. A very good job.

Turning to the technical and backstage side of things: The scenic design was by Ovington Michael Owston (FB), the REP Executive Director. He noted that the idea was a set that looked like it had been done in crayon, and there were even little design touches from his daughter, as well as from Connor Pratt/FB and Frank Rock/FB. More significantly for the REP regulars (who know about the hidden “81”s on the set — there are four, we could only find three), there were visual call-outs on the set to two members of the REP family: Michael Levine, who passed away in December 2013, and Darel Roberts, who passed away in December 2014.  This is a visual demonstration of why REP is more than a theatre — to its regulars (actors, technicians, staff, and audience), it is a family. Sound design was  by REP regular Nanook/FB. It was the first time I’ve seen microphones used at the REP, and they were at times a little muddy in the sound. Again, I’m sure this will be adjusted as things shake out in the run. Lighting design was by Jeffrey Hampton/FB and Tim Christianson/FB and mostly worked well. There were some technical difficulties with one light at our performance; the actors dealt with it well, and Tim was up on a ladder at the end of the show swapping out the misbehaving light. The videos were designed by Jeremiah Lowder (FB) and were (a) cute and (b) worked well. Kim Iosue/FB was the stage manager, assisted by Jeffrey Hampton/FB and Connor Pratt/FB. J. T. Centonze (FB) was behind the bar :-). Avenue Q was produced by Ovington Michael Owston (FB) and  Mikee Schwinn/FB.

Rep East Season 11Avenue Q continues at Repertory East Playhouse [REP] (FB) through February 14. It is well worth seeing. Tickets are available through the REP Online Box office, or by calling 661-288-0000. A limited number are available on Goldstar,  although many shows are sold out. REP has also announced the remainder of their 11th season: Doubt (March 6 – April 4); Beer for Breakfast (May 8 – June 6); Jesus Christ Superstar (July 10 – August 15); The Diviners (September 18 – October 17); and Deathtrap (November 13 – December 12). I’m sure there will be additional one-or-two weekend shows and fundraisers throughout this period as well.

Ob. Disclaimer: I am not a trained theatre critic; I am, however, a regular theatre audience. I’ve been attending live theatre in Los Angeles since 1972; I’ve been writing up my thoughts on theatre (and the shows I see) since 2004. I do not have theatre training (I’m a computer security specialist), but have learned a lot about theatre over my many years of attending theatre and talking to talented professionals. I pay for all my tickets unless otherwise noted. I believe in telling you about the shows I see to help you form your opinion; it is up to you to determine the weight you give my writeups.

Upcoming Shows: Next weekend brings an interesting mashup: Pulp Shakespeare (or Bard Fiction) at Theatre Asylum (FB) — this show is described as  “Ever wonder what Quentin Tarantino’s masterpiece PULP FICTION would be like reimagined by the immortal William Shakespeare?”. I’m also debating an additional show for Sunday — perhaps going to see Colin of Bitter Lemons at the ZJU 50 Hour Drive-By Show, Disconnection in Beverly Hills, or possibly Serrano: The Musical (although there are no discount tickets except for “day of” through The last weekend of January concludes with the Cantors Concert on Sat January 31 at Temple Ahavat Shalom, and I’m potentially looking for another show for Sunday (again, Disconnection, Serrano, or possibly Chavez Ravine at the Kirk Douglas). February and March pick up even more. We have a Bat Mitzvah on Saturday, February 7, so there may not be theatre that weekend (but who knows). The next week brings two shows: “Loch Ness” at the Chance Theatre (FB) on February 14 and “The Threepenny Opera” at A Noise Within (FB) on February 15. The weekend of February 21 is open; however, the one show that interests me (Fugue) only has Sunday tickets, and my Sunday is booked with non-theatre stuff.  February closes with “The Road to Appomattox” at The Colony Theatre (FB) on February 28. March is equally busy, with the MRJ Man of the Year dinner on March 7, “Carrie: The Musical” at La Mirada Theatre for the Performing Arts (FB) on March 14, a hold for “Drowsy Chaperone” at CSUN on Friday March 20, “Doubt” at REP East (FB) on Saturday March 21, “Newsies” at the Pantages (FB) on March 28, followed by Pesach and the Renaissance Faire on April 11. Additionally, there’s a Marcy and Zina concert at Pepperdine on Tuesday, February 3; alas, as it is a weeknight, I probably won’t make it. As always, I’m keeping my eyes open for interesting productions mentioned on sites such as Bitter-Lemons, and Musicals in LA, as well as productions I see on Goldstar, LA Stage Tix, Plays411.