Arts & Culture

'Avenue Q' has puppets and purpose

The human-and-puppet cast of Kelrik Productions’ ‘Avenue Q.’
The human-and-puppet cast of Kelrik Productions’ ‘Avenue Q.’ TRIBUNE FILE PHOTO BY JAYSON MELLOM

‘Avenue Q” is much more fun than it’s going to sound on paper. The offbeat musical by Robert Lopez, Jeff Marx and Jeff Whitty won three Tony awards, including Best Musical, somewhat surprising because the main characters are puppets.

Director Erik Austin of Kelrik Productions, best known for family shows, is a perfect fit for this adult incarnation of “Sesame Street.” His whimsical imagination energizes the story of a group of inhabitants of a scruffy apartment complex — young adults adrift in New York, searching for their “purpose” in life.

The tenants include Princeton, a naive idealist just out of college; Rod, a gay Republican investment banker and his roommate Nicky; Kate Monster, and Trekkie Monster. Other Muppetlike puppet characters are Lucy T. (for The) Slut, and crabby schoolteacher Mrs. T., whose last name can’t be printed in a family newspaper.

These clever hand puppets are manipulated by actors dressed in plain dark clothing. They do such a good job of it that after the initial reaction, you find yourself focusing on the puppets, not the puppeteers who are doing the talking and singing.

The other characters, who are not puppets, are Brian, a wannabe comedian, his ditzy Asian girlfriend Christmas Eve, and the building super, Gary Coleman—yes, the actor Gary Coleman, who took the job “after my parents stole my money.” Secondary characters are the Bad Idea Bears, teddy-like puppets who talk people into doing things they shouldn’t do.

It sounds too cute, but the themes and dialogue are adult, including a wild and funny sex act, as explicit as it can be when the partners are puppets that exist only from the waist up. The songs too are adult, among them, “It Sucks to Be Me,” “If You Were Gay,” “Everyone’s a Little Bit Racist,” and “The Internet Is For Porn.”

The cast is excellent, all good singers and comics. Cody Pettit is Princeton, endowing his puppet self with energy as it bounces about, hair flapping, as “they” sing. Each puppet magically acquires its actor’s personality. Adrianna Leiby makes Kate Monster (Princeton’s romantic interest) sweet and cute, even though she’s orange and hairy. Mark Rohnery plays Rod’s roommate Nicky, who looks like Kermit, and gets sympathy as he becomes homeless.

Lester Wilson goes all out to fire up Trekkie Monster as a funny, profane wild man. Lucy T. Slut is costumed like a stripper, and Veronica Surber wears fishnet stockings and struts a bit to animate her. Taylor Peters gives Mrs. T a cranky persona. The nasty little Bad Idea Bears are voiced by Redzuan Abdul Rahim and Kelly Barrett.

Michael Rogers gives Rod, the closet gay banker, a poignant vulnerability, and they almost look alike. Rogers is also director of puppetry, and he did a great job. It must have taken a lot of training to get the puppets’ mouths to move in such synchronization with the lyrics and the dialogue. The puppets were made by director Austin, and they are delightful.

Puppets, puppet monsters and non-puppet actors are well integrated, although in the story the monsters are considered a minority. Gary Coleman is wryly played by Nicki Barnes, and Jeremy Ryan is pretty much a straight man as Brian. His Japanese girlfriend Christmas Eve was played by understudy Amy Shank when I saw the show, and she was terrific. The funniest one in the cast, she seemed like a natural comedian, but her bio says that she’s part of Cal Poly’s’ improv team and studied with Chicago’s Second City Comedy Program. She brought down the house singing “The More You Ruv Someone.”

The good cast is a reminder of the rich talent pool on the Central Coast, with Cal Poly’s theater, music and dance departments and the Pacific Conservatory of the Performing Arts to draw from.

Although the show is for adults, it’s not crass. In fact, it’s rather sweet as the characters find ways to help themselves and each other and begin to learn some of life’s lessons. Audience members must be accompanied by a parent or guardian if they are under 17.

The audience at Unity was made up mostly of enthusiastic young adults, a demographic that’s often missing at local theater productions. They gave the cast a standing ovation.