No strings attached: “Avenue Q” returns with your favorite puppetsFeb 04, 2017 09:59AM ● By Travis Barton
Lauren Call operates her character Kate Monster. Call said learning to match herself with the puppet was the most difficult part of the show. (Midvale Main Street Theatre)
By Travis Barton | [email protected]
It is not your typical puppet show.
“Avenue Q”, the Tony Award-winning musical, is showing at the Midvale Main Street Theatre from Feb. 2-18. It tells the story of a neighboring group of puppets and humans living in New York City as they face real-life issues.
“I was so invested in this show that…I’m like dying at the stuff I’m seeing onstage and I’m just laughing and enjoying myself the whole time, that’s a real gift to me,” said Director Tammy Ross after the show’s opening night on Feb. 2.
The show is famous for its comedic songs and heartfelt messages.
“I like how dynamic it is, how much depth there is to it. It has a lot of humor you laugh throughout it, but then there’s really, really touching moments,” said JJ Bateman who plays Brian.
After putting on the show a few years ago, Ross said it was time to bring back a musical where most of the characters are puppets held by unhidden actors.
“You have to think of your puppet as an extension of yourself. You have to express your emotions through your hand muscles and that’s really hard to get the grasp of,” said Taylor Lawrence who plays Lucy the Slut and Mrs. Thistletwat.
Learning not only how to puppeteer, but how to convey feeling and emotion were a few ways actors had to prepare for the show which required some arm exercises to keep their puppets aloft for long periods of time.
“Physically it was very demanding… we’d have to physically strengthen our bodies to be able to keep them suspended the whole show,” said Jake Holt who plays supportive friend Nicky.
Actors also need to match their puppet’s mouth movements to syllables of their own voice or match the puppet’s facial movements and expressions.
Lauren Call, who plays Kate Monster, said it was difficult to get the mannerisms of the puppet at first such as a tilt of the head or ensuring the mouth was open.
“This was the hardest show I’ve ever been in because of that (matching her facial expressions). I think a lot of times I wouldn’t open the mouth…it took a really long time for me to feel like I was comfortable with [Kate Monster],” Call said.
It also requires balance from the actors to keep the focus on the puppets. “You emulate your puppet, but you don’t upstage your puppet,” Holt said.
Difficulty of puppet interaction extends to characters not holding any puppets as well like Gary Coleman (Talia Heiss) and married couple Christmas Eve (Selah McKenna) and Brian.
“That was my hardest part is trying to interact with the people and not look at their faces,” Heiss said.
McKenna added that the “puppets are so expressive just by themselves and when they’re so close to you it’s so intense, it’s like ‘back off’.”
Ross bought actual replicas of the puppets originally used in the Broadway show and the puppet creator for the show, Joel Gennari, recently helped design and create puppets used in an off-Broadway show.
The set design—made up of hand-cut Styrofoam also painted by hand—includes the look of three small buildings, something set designer Sean McLaughlin thought would be impossible to do on a small theatre stage.
Though the puppets and design draw the audience’s eye, the cast and director said the messages found in the comedic show help make it relatable.
“It highlights a lot of mistakes that normal people make and hardships normal people have. The puppets just make a caricature of it,” Holt said.
Whether it’s singing about tolerance, racism, growing up, pornography or schadenfreude, Christian Earl, who plays Princeton, said the issues it raises are relevant.
“It talks about them in such a blunt, honest way from the perspective of us selfish humans that it really opens up a whole different part of the conversation that we aren’t willing to talk about as people,” Earl said.
Portraying such themes with puppets could be shocking to some at first—the show does contain strong language and adult content with a warning on the program’s cover—but cast members feel it’s also the funniest part.
“The things I can say in person do not even emulate what that little puppet can say and get away with,” said Jeremy Heaps who plays Rod.
Whether it’s pointing out how an actor and their puppet look similar or dancing backstage during a song, the cast—who do the show for free—stressed the special bonds they’ve forged during production.
“This production has a really great cast. Everybody’s really easy to get along with… it’s also great when you come and do a show like this and then you have people you can trust on stage,” said Danny Eggers who plays Trekkie Monster.
Creating that family atmosphere is something Ross said is one of her biggest goals during a production. She said that bond and that closeness emulates out into the audience and “they see and really know that these people genuinely love and care for each other.”
The cohesion allows for seamless logistics, which can prove problematic in a show where puppet operators need doors and curtains opened for them or various puppets require multiple wardrobe changes.
And with people clamoring to be part of the show, Ross was grateful to every member of the musical.
“I think it’s something really special and I think this cast is absolutely the most amazing group of people I’ve worked with in a long time,” Ross said.
“Avenue Q” also includes a scene in Act II where the cast will accept donations from members of the audience to be given to Planned Parenthood. Ross said the cast decided to raise funds for a special cause. One that comes out of a special show.
“With the state of the world right now,” Call said. “It may be too soon for some people but it feels good to be able to come somewhere and laugh for a bit.”
Where: 7711 S. Main Street, Midvale, Utah
When: Feb. 2-18
Tickets: $15 general admission, $18 reserved seating. To purchase tickets in advance, go to www.midvaletheatre.com.