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When Puppets Grow Up

‘Avenue Q’ considers universal themes in unique way

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Photographs by COURTESY PHOTO

Halley Mayo is Kate Monster and Chandler Reid Evans is Princeton in the University Theatre production of “Avenue Q.” “I love my character, Kate Monster, and she is the puppet,” says Mayo. “So I guess I am attached to my puppet! I make jokes in rehearsal by asking, ‘Can you fall in love with a puppet?’”

"Avenue Q," the 2004 Tony Award winner for Best Musical that opens at University Theatre this weekend, begins with a sunny song that introduces the audience to an urban block of row houses, populated by puppets and humans alike. Fans of classic episodes of a certain PBS educational series of the 1970s and 1980s will find the scene familiar. Or they will until Princeton, a puppet who is a recent college graduate, launches into "What Do You Do with a B.A. in English?" which, in turn, segues into "It Sucks to be Me," a song that features puppets and humans arguing about who is the biggest failure.

"It sucks to be broke and unemployed/And turning 33, it sucks to be me," sings a character.

FAQ

‘Avenue Q’

WHEN — 2 & 7:30 p.m. Nov. 12; 7:30 p.m. Nov. 15-17; 2 p.m. Nov. 19

WHERE — University Theatre in Fayetteville

COST — $5-$20

INFO — 575-4752

At that point, it's clear we took a wrong turn on the way to Sesame Street.

"These puppets are fun and funny, but they are dealing with decidedly adult concepts, like finding rewarding employment, navigating romantic relationships and exploring their sexuality," says director Morgan Hicks.

"The show was created by a pair of 20-something writers who were having trouble adjusting to life after college graduation," she continues. "They were, like so many of us, searching for their purpose in life and feeling nostalgic for the time in their lives when the answers to the big questions were easy to find and often delivered through a song or by a cartoon or a puppet. They soon found how absurd and delightful it was to watch the puppets struggle with much more complex issues. And the audiences and critics agreed."

Hicks points out that "Avenue Q" snagged the Tony Award for Best Musical out of the clutches of a show that many thought was a sure thing -- "Wicked." The show also won Tony Awards for Best Original Score and Best Book (and was directed by Fayetteville native Jason Moore).

Hicks says one of the challenges of the show is training the actors to work the puppets.

"We have 11 human actors and 11 puppet actors -- and we had to really learn how each one of them wanted to be operated," says Hicks. "We brought in Kevin Noonchester, one of the actors who was in the original Las Vegas cast, to do a puppet boot camp with the actors. That was an awesome week that really laid the foundation for how the puppets were to be held and handled. It has been such an amazing new skill for the actors to learn.

"Usually when puppets are featured in a show, there is an attempt for the operator to be hidden, but in Avenue Q, the actor and the puppet are working in tandem."

Hicks directed last year's edgy "Lysistrata" for University Theatre and cautions that -- despite the puppets -- this isn't a show for children. It even contains, as Hicks puts it, "full puppet nudity."

"Theater has always been an art form that loves to dance on the line of what is or is not appropriate," Hicks says. "So many plays throughout the timeline of theater history carry content that could be considered controversial, and so many contemporary plays contain adult themes and content. I love that the department is excited about selecting great shows without being worried that the content always needs to be safe or conservative."

"Underneath the humor, there are definitely themes we can all relate to," says actor Halley Mayo.

Puppets conceived and designed by Rick Lyon. Constructed by Character Translations, Inc. for Music Theatre International.

NAN What's Up on 11/12/2017

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