Monday, May 6, 2013

Avenue Q: The Musical

Ever since I saw the previews of "Avenue Q:  The Musical," I've wanted to see this show.  Although I've been to New York City to see several other theater productions over the past several years, I have not yet made it to the New World Theaters (off Broadway) where the original "Avenue Q" has been playing.

So, when I learned that this show was playing at a theater closer to home, I promptly bought my tickets. Part of our road trip this past weekend took us to the Sharadin Bigler Theatre in the Ephrata Performing Arts Center, in Ephrata, Pennsylvania to see it.

This 300 seat theater has been smack dab in the center of the Ephrata Community Park since 1912, and has changed purposes over the years. First the building served as a dance hall.  Later it was a roller rink, and ultimately a summer playhouse.

Although the exterior is not anything exciting, the interior is quite modern and comfortable. In 2004, a $2.4 million gift to the theater enabled a major renovation, including heating, air conditioning, rest rooms, rehearsal areas, and a modern snack counter.  Now the theater is able to offer professional productions all year round.

Lucy, the Slut
A laugh-out-loud winner of the Tony Triple Crown - Best Musical, Best Score, and Best Book - "Avenue Q" pairs live performers with Muppet-like characters, as the residents of a shabby New York neighborhood struggle with universal issues ranging from romance, racism, unemployment, sexual identity, and porn.

I was familiar with the musical score and the thematic content before I went, and so for that reason I did not invite any friends along.  I also knew that I would not necessarily agree with some of the themes and comments, but I was still curious enough to go, mainly to see the puppetry.

I suppose you could probably describe this show as a type of Sesame Street for Adults, and in spite of its controversial themes, we did enjoy it.  Unlike most puppet performances, in this show you could see the handlers.

Many years ago, the husband/lover/character and I had been part of a performance group that sometimes included puppets, so we were watching for the details in the puppetry performance.  It is simply not easy to be acting, singing, speaking, and manipulating a puppet all at the same time, much less make it all look somewhat believable.

Two rod puppets, one rod each
Some of the actors were using traditional rod puppets, which have a long thin metal rod is attached to one or both of the puppet's arms.  The puppeteer moves the rod to make it look as if the puppet is making hand gestures.  It was noticeable in this production that none of the rod puppeteers used two rods, a technique that is much more difficult than only using one.

Other actors were using a much more difficult type of puppet to manipulate, the human hand puppet.  In this type, the puppet has actual sleeves and gloves into which the actors' hands fit.  Usually two puppeteers are needed to operate this type of puppet, similar to Ernie (of Bert and Ernie) on Sesame Street.

A rod puppet on the left and a human hand puppet on the right.
As you can see in the orange shirted puppet, the male performer operates the puppet's head and left arm.  The female performer operates the puppet's right arm.  It takes much coordination for the two performers to work together and make the puppet look lifelike.

At times, if there aren't enough free puppeteers, one of the puppet's arms can be left to simply dangle.

Did you know that for a puppet to be a real puppet it will only have 4 fingers?  And that applies to both rod and human hand puppets.

This cast of performers did a great job with the puppetry, and we were fairly impressed.  They are local actors that had been given a "crash course" in puppetry by a puppet master prior to beginning rehearsals.  Although the puppets' lip syncing wasn't always perfect, most of the cast were able to make their puppets look fairly believable.

As I said earlier, this show is not for everyone.  I'm glad I saw it though, and it was certainly a unique date night for us.

There's just something universally fun about puppets.  I suppose at heart I'm simply still a big kid.  They never fail to make me smile.