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Adult Puppetry:

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Avenue Q
City Stage • 21 North Front St # 501
10/6-9, 14-16, 21-22, 28-30, 8 p.m.
Tickets: $18-$22

(l. to r.) Anna Gamel, Bad Idea Bears, Adam Poole, Princeton and Jason Aycock in ‘Avenue Q.’ Courtesy of City Stage.

“It’s basically an R-rated puppet show but with exquisite music and a story to which everyone can relate,” William Day, director of City Stage’s season opener, “Avenue Q,” says. In essence, audiences unfamiliar with the work can think “Sesame Street” meets “South Park.”

Day, a veteran on the local scene who’s directed “Godspell” and last acted in “Hair,” moved to New York in 2001. A professional actor, he often would hang out at a watering hole in his neighborhood, located on West 45th Street.

“I remember coming out of the bar one evening and looking across the street, [where] they were putting up the ‘Avenue Q’ banner and posters in front of the John Golden Theatre.” he recollects.

Written by Jeff Whitty, “Avenue Q” scored big at the Tony Awards after its debut in 2003. Winning Best Musical, Best Book of a Musical and Best Original Score, it also caught the eye of the GLAAD Media Awards, which awarded it Best Outstanding Theatre Production (Los Angeles). Better yet, its accolades are backed by fanatical audiences. Day agreed it was the best thing he had ever seen and still credits the show’s magnifying power to entertain and affect audiences.

“Everyone can relate to ‘Avenue Q,’” he says, “especially if you’re a young adult who recently graduated from college. I remember being in my mid-twenties and moving to a very sketchy neighborhood in Brooklyn. It’s all I could afford at the time, and I literally had to find a job within a week so I could pay my rent and eat.”

Thus is the backbone of this Muppet-like tale (though, there is no connection between “Avenue Q” and the John Henson franchise). It follows a group of young adults living in an outer-outer burrough of the city, learning to take on the world and live their lives independently, through their own decisions and values. Throughout their progression in the show, they sing about careers, love, and everyday encounters that add to the spirited fun and hilarity of young adulthood. The show gets an added dose of color as the actors portray their characters as puppets.

“Avenue Q” expects audiences to suspend disbelief over seeing the puppeteers live onstage. The theatrical context adds another element of creative impact to a show that could be just another generational tale, like that of “Rent.” Instead, it becomes an homage not just to the children’s show so many were reared on, but it extends beyond childhood and into a fantasy world of maturity that’s inevitable in the face of growth. On top of it all, the actors have to impart emotions and body language of the puppets live.

“[It’s] interesting and unique that you get to watch the puppets and the actors portraying them,” Day notes. “Even with puppets, the themes are very real and poignant. The most important theme of this show is to live your life on day at a time. Don’t let the stress of everyday life get you down. And no matter what, there’s humor in everything.”

With names like Trekki Monster or the camaraderie of Rod and Nikky, obvious connections to the Big Bird gang become clear. Yet, their language and the content is definitely for mature audiences, often peppered with profanity.

“There are two characters similar to Burt and Ernie, and there’s also a character that resembles cookie monster,” Day explains. “Instead of being obsessed with cookies, he is obsessed with Internet porn!”

Set to music, honest material carries the show’s enlightenment. The cast sings of drinking (“Long Island Iced Teas”), neighbor sex (“You Can Be as Loud as the Hell You Want (When You’re Makin’ Love)”), break ups (“There is Life Outside Your Apartment”), homosexuality (“If You Were Gay”) and dreams (“School for Monsters/The Money Song”).
“It’s clever, melodic, catchy and very demanding for singers,” Day says. “We spent a lot of time on the music . . . The script moves fast, and the rhythm of the show is very important.”

There is even an underlying joke throughout the show, with a superintendent named Gary Coleman.The “Diff’rent Strokes” actor originally was asked to perform in the debut of the play but wasn’t able to do so. He threatened to sue the company for use of his name but nothing came of it. Creators Robert Lopez and Jeff Marx find him pertinent to the story’s plot. “It’s one of the most important themes in ‘Avenue Q,’” they once said—“that life isn’t as easy as we’ve been led to believe, and who better to symbolize the oh-so-special-as-a-kid/but-not-so-special-as-an-adult thing we all faced than Gary Coleman? He’s practically the poster child.”

City Stage’s set is done by Scenic Asylum and Terry Collins, lighting by Dallas Lafton and music by Chiaki Ito. The show’s cast includes Anna Gamel, Adam Poole, Tracy Byrd, Jason Aycock and Bradley Evans. “‘Avenue Q’ is hilarious,” Day assures. “We’re lucky to have actors that are also gifted comedians.”

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