Today's show is brought to you by the letter Q. As in…
Question: Why does education ostensibly halt once we leave college?
If there was ever a subject that desperately needed a textbook or Sesame Street-type show, it's how to make it in the real world after spending the first part of your life insulated from it?
Enter the hilariously didactic educational program for adults, Avenue Q, now having its first North Texas production at the Music Theatre of Denton.
With music and lyrics by the Tony-winning team of Jeff Marx and Robert Lopez, and book and lyrics by Jeff Whitty, Avenue Q plays with the all-too-familiar theme of fresh-faced kids trying to get their bearings in the world of adults, faced with issues like finding a job, renting an apartment, paying bills, making new friends and finding love. What makes the show unique is they do it using puppets a la the aforementioned Sesame Street.
But Muppets these are not. No, these puppets are adult puppets. They swear, they look up porn on the Internet and they have sex. Yet, they're all very genuine and have the same qualities that once endeared kids to the Muppets. Also distinguishing these particular non-humans is the fact that they're manipulated by humans who stand on stage, dressed in black yet clearly visible to the audience. It's a concept that asks the audience to work extra hard to suspend their disbelief. Thankfully, the show is good enough, it's not distracting, and at times, may even help as the puppeteers mimic their characters' facial expressions as they perform them.
The show opens with a recent college graduate, Princeton (Matt Purvis), who is looking for an apartment. After starting at Avenue A, he has worked himself all the way down the alphabet to Avenue Q, which is much cheaper. Upon entering the block he encounters all the other tenants, who have been opining to each other "It Sucks To Be Me." Spotting a For Rent sign, he enquires with the superintendent, who turns out to be former child star Gary Coleman (Erica Cole), one of three human characters in the show.
Princeton moves in and the show sets about introducing the other characters, who got basic introduction in their opening song, in further detail. First are Rod (Chris Jordan) and Nicky (Justin Harmon, with additional puppeteering by Anna Marie Boyd). A not-so-subtle nod to Sesame Street's Bert and Ernie, Rod is a conservative investment banker and Nicky is his slacker roommate. Believing Rod is gay, Nicky sings "If You Were Gay" to let him know it's OK.
"Everyone's a Little Bit Racist" finds Princeton accidentally saying something insensitive about monsters to Kate Monster (Nikki Cloer), his would-be love interest in the show. The song title is self-explanatory. And to make it a truly multi-cultural conversation, Gary joins in followed by the other two human characters, mixed-race, engaged couple Brian (Eric Ryan) and Christmas Eve (Olivia Emile). The song is one of the highlights of the show and a fan favorite.
Finally, the reclusive character Trekkie Monster (Ted Minette)—a cookie monster shout-out—is introduced when Kate sings about getting a teach a lesson to her kindergarten class in "The Internet is for Porn." Predictably, as opposed to oven-baked cookies, Trekkie is addicted tothe web-based kind.
The musical brings a very "kids' show" atmosphere to something meant for adults, and it totally works. Whether it is because of nostalgia or just plain old excellent writing and music, Avenue Q acts as a kind of cultural touchstone for millennials like Rent was for Generation X. The same general themes are present but they're told in a way that's more relatable to a generation that grew up educational programming and has fully embraced the more highbrow regions of humor with parody and satire, evident in the popularity of programming like The Daily Show and The Colbert Report.
But, people in their 20s and early 30s aren't the only ones who saw the importance of the show. It won the 2004 Tony for Best Musical, beating the heavy favorite Wicked.
Music Theatre of Denton's production is the area premiere of the show and they do not disappoint.
There was a question going in as to how the puppets would be handled. Would replicates be provided to theaters doing the show, or would they be required to make their own? The potentially disappointing choice of making their own puppets was the answer. Yet, MTD has employed the help of Imagined Creations and comes away with an impressive cast of characters. They even take some liberties and change up the looks of characters like Kate Monster, Nicky and Rod. But, the changes work and the overall quality of the stuffed cast members is extraordinary.
Not to be outdone by their inanimate counterparts, the cast is a joy. Purvis injects a youthful earnestness into Princeton and has great chemistry with Cloer's Kate. And Cloer is nothing short of phenomenal. She brings Kate's emotional soul to life, not to mention some pretty strong pipes.
Jordan, Harmon and Minette are notable for their abilities to hone in on their character's distinctive voices. It may seem like a slight compliment but with such an iconic show, it no doubt would have been disappointing to not hear the familiar voices from the original cast recording.
For their part, Cole, Ryan and Emile are what ultimately sell the show because they're able to interact with the puppets as if they're real, whilst completely ignoring the people standing right next to them with their arms inside the puppets.
Particularly remarkable is Emile. Christmas Eve is a difficult voice role, not only having to sing with an exaggerated Japanese accent, but having to belt it, a lot. And Emile pulls it off flawlessly, while also managing to be possibly the funniest character with her facial expressions and body language.
Not to be outdone, the behind-the-stage gang pulls out their A game as well. Stephanie Felton's choreography is the perfect balance between showy stage musical and Disney on Ice. But most of all, it's a major player in the show. Too often, choreography feels like an afterthought in a lot of local and touring musicals. Felton takes the role seriously and comes out with a well-executed whole.
And the man behind all the craziness on stage is Director Bill Kirkley, who also handles the excellent set design. Kirkley is faced with a daunting task. Take a sometimes sexual, often foul-mouthed musical with puppets and present it in a way that a local audience will be receptive to it. And so, some compromises have been made. Whereas the original production featured puppet nudity, here it is left out—or at least only implied—in this production (the sex scene is intact, though, and the MTD cast goes for it). However, he does keep in nearly, if not all of, the swearing, which is good because it just wouldn't be the real world if there weren't any "F-bombs" being dropped.
The general sentiment coming out of the show is a mixture of relief and surprise, admittedly. A show like this finally becoming available to local theaters is a precarious notion. But to their credit, MTD handles it well and turns out a fantastic show.
"There's a Fine, Fine Line" between a good show and a bad one, but in Music Theatre of Denton's case fantasies certainly do come true.