Hit Broadway musical Avenue Q shows in Cedar Rapids this weekend

BY TOMMY MORGAN JR. | MARCH 25, 2010 7:30 AM

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Everyone’s a little bit racist — sometimes. The Internet is for porn. You can be as loud as the hell you want when you’re making love.

These are the lessons that the musical Avenue Q, an at-times crass modern descendant of “Sesame Street,” will present this weekend in the U.S. Cellular Center, 370 First Ave. N.E., Cedar Rapids.

Performances will take place Friday through March 28 at 7:30 p.m. and at 2 p.m. on Saturday and March 28. Tickets are $35 for college students, $50 to $57 for others.

Avenue Q, which won the 2004 Tony Award for Best Musical and is a current Broadway show in New York City, tells the story of Princeton, a recent college graduate with few prospects who is looking for a cheap apartment. Princeton eventually moves to the titular street, where he runs into a strange group of neighbors, including eventual love interest Kate Monster and the shut-in Trekkie Monster. Princeton, Trekkie, and Kate — in addition to most of the other characters — are puppets.

Puppets have played a role in theatrical productions since at least the times of the ancient Egyptian and Indus Valley civilizations. While they primarily are used in children’s theater today, puppets have been used in political plays, funerary rites, and in mainstream entertainment such as Star Wars and, of course, Avenue Q.

In the United States over the last 50 or so years, puppetry gained popularity in part through television, with marionettes along the likes of Howdy Doody. In the ’60s and ’70s, Jim Henson’s creations on “The Muppet Show” and “Sesame Street” became the face of puppetry in popular culture.

The puppets of Avenue Q aren’t controlled by faceless puppeteers as one would see on “Sesame Street” or “The Muppet Show,” however. Instead, they are operated by the actors who voice them and move about onstage behind the puppets.

If the actors are onstage, why use puppets in the first place?

“When you design a show, you think about why some characters are humans and some are puppets,” said Monica Leo, a puppeteer with the Eulenspiegel Puppet Theatre in West Liberty. There is a certain logic that must be applied to a theatrical production that uses puppets, she said. The puppets must serve a specific purpose and not just be in the show for the sake of being puppets.

“One of the rules of thumb is if you choose to do something with puppets, you want the feeling that the puppet can do it better than a human can do it,” the puppeteer said. “The question is, ‘Why am I doing this with puppets instead of humans?’ ”

Because the puppeteers of Avenue Q work directly behind their puppets onstage, the actors who play human characters must navigate their movement and lines with the puppeteers as well as the puppets. This was difficult at first, said Nigel Jamaal Clark, an actor in the musical, but it quickly got easier.

“We’re very in tune with each other on stage,” said Clark. “I think with a puppet, I find that you have to kind of really keep focus with your fellow actor. You have to really make eye contact to keep in the scene.”

When he saw the play for the first time, he said, he feared he would be distracted by the puppeteers on the stage. However, the lighting of the stage and the nondescript clothing that the puppeteers wear — in contrast to the brighter, louder clothing Avenue Q’s humans wear — eliminate any distractions.

Clark’s character, Gary Coleman, one of the few human characters in the play, is the landlord of the building into which Princeton moves. Coleman is a theatrical representation of the child star of “Diff’rent Strokes.” Clark pointed out, however, that the character, while parodying Coleman, is not meant to simply satirize the actor.

“It’s stating a fact,” Clark said in describing his role. “Sure, it might be funny, but there’s a fine line between making fun of him [and making that point]. Onstage, I try to come across as a teacher, a positive mentor to Princeton.”

From Clark’s description of the Coleman character, a portrait of the larger play can be found. Avenue Q specializes in both humor and life lessons. For this, it parallels such shows as “Sesame Street,” which served as an inspiration for the musical and the design of the puppets.

The humor comes from such songs as “The Internet is For Porn” and “You Can Be as Loud as the Hell You Want (When You’re Making Love),” and more lighthearted fare meant to inspire laughter.

“The characters and puppets are saying what everyone is thinking but don’t have the courage to say out loud,” Clark said.

Perhaps that’s one answer to Leo’s point about using puppets instead of humans. Because “it’s not afraid to go out on a limb to get a laugh,” as UI sophomore and Avenue Q fan Patrick Mahoney said, the musical uses puppets to go places topically that humans may not be able to when performing for a wide audience.

Even the humorous moments have a certain truth to them, though, Clark pointed out, citing the song “Everyone’s a Little Bit Racist,” a number in which the characters of Avenue Q point out each others’ prejudices.

“A lot of people could be offended by the show, but it’s just so honest,” the actor said.

The show certainly isn’t without its share of humanity, either. As Princeton begins to question his purpose in life and his relationship with Kate falters, the trials of life are on full display, and people can find something to learn as they laugh.

“Avenue Q is all about making your way in the world right after college,” Hancher marketing director Rob Cline said. “The show is absolutely hilarious … but it also is about the value of friendship and hanging on when things are tough. These people and puppets are searching for their purpose, and I think that’s a feeling that many people will recognize.”

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