Now that my friends are all having babies, I get to watch "Sesame Street" a lot more than usual. Avenue Q is similar to this TV classic in that there are puppets. Actually, the connections run deeper than that, but what writers Robert Lopez and Jeff Marx cooked up with this 2002 play is no kid's show. Think: What if "Sesame Street" tackled issues like racism, homosexuality, homelessness, pornography and one night stands? The UM's School of Theatre and Dance production of Avenue Q, directed by Jere Hodgin, gives us puppets living average lives with normal people problems in an affordable housing complex run by Gary Coleman (Clare Edgerton) somewhere in New York City. At one point two characters walk on drinking tallboys of PBR, if that gives you any indication.
Twelve puppet characters share the world of Avenue Q seamlessly with two humans (Greg Bortz and HanaSara Ito), as Muppets tend to do. There's little distinction between the species, but racial tensions do arise intra-puppeterily. You've got "normal" puppets and "monster" puppets, and the monsters are the second-class citizens. Principle puppet character Princeton (John Knispel) falls for monster Kate (Maria Miller) after rolling into town fresh on the optimism of his college degree. But it doesn't take long before the realities of the world catch up with him, inciting this irreverent tale of community, love and identity told in scene and song. Oh yeah, did I mention this is a musical? Of course it is.
As foul-mouthed as Avenue Q gets, this might be the cleanest production I've seen from UM. Sets and lighting are elegant and balanced. The sound quality is crisp and professional (it doesn't hurt that these actors really know how to belt out a tune, or that the music is all live). The stage techs manage to maintain ninja invisibility while doubling as occasional singers/dancers. I typically despise video in theater, but the media team integrated the subtle cartoony touches just-so.
Casting couldn't have been better, particularly Rod (Hugh Butterfield), a Republican investment banker in the closet; Lucy the Slut (Quinn Vaira), who channels some unholy hybrid of Marilyn Monroe and Charles Bukowski; and the porn-fiending Trekkie Monster (Hugh Bickley) with a voice straight out of Dr. Teeth & the Electric Mayhem. And I'm pretty sure Sean Kirkpatrick and Christina Scruggs were sent to Earth specifically to play the Bad Idea Bears. I hate to single anyone out. The whole cast was on top of their game.
It's hard to go wrong with numbers like "The Internet is for Porn," "It Sucks to be Me" and "You Can Be as Loud as the Hell You Want (When You're Makin' Love)," but you might start to wonder whether there's more to this show than raunchy silliness. The answer is yep. After a "Sesame Street" trope of dancing letters haunts Princeton by morphing "purpose" into "propose," there follows a perceptive handling of the often-trivialized male fear of commitment and a surprisingly realistic break-up scene. Things never get too heavy, though. Before long, Ito sings, "the more you love someone the more you want to kill them" to remind us where we are. But even when the plot reaches its most ridiculous heights, Avenue Q smolders with little truths, making a strong case for not freaking out over the small stuff, or even the medium-sized stuff. All things must pass, everything changes. This is a blessing as well as a curse. Life is short, but so are the hard times.
UM's production is one delightful piece of theatercohesive and enthusiastic. If you aren't easily offended then you won't regret going to this show. Besides, the puppets flew in all the way from Pennsylvania for this event. When the show's done they'll leave Missoula forever. I can only imagine the separation anxiety the puppet handlers might experiencethe puppet/master bond is a mystery. You can feel it from the auditorium. There's a lively little burg up there on stage.
Avenue Q continues at the Montana Theatre in UM's PARTV Center Thu., Oct. 3, through Sat., Oct. 5, and Tue., Oct. 8, through Sat., Oct. 12, at 7:30 PM nightly. $20/$16 students and seniors.