he puppets of Avenue Q, the Tony-winning musical about young adults finding their way in the world, are adorable. They look a lot like the Muppets. Until they open those cute little mouths. "We deal with a whole lot of parents who see the poster with a puppet on it and don't read the poster, which says, 'Please, for the love of God, don't bring your children!' '' says Robert McClure, who plays Princeton, a recent college grad with a B.A. in English. "They show up with three 4-year-olds, and when Kate Monster says the first 'F---! It sucks to be me!' they think, 'Wait a second . . .' Usually by the puppet sex scene, we might see a few walkouts.'' For all its shock value, Avenue Q, which opens Tuesday at the Tampa Bay Performing Arts Center, has a delightful score by Robert Lopez and Jeff Marx and won the 2004 Tony Award for best musical, beating out Wicked. Songs such as It Sucks To Be Me, Everyone's a Little Bit Racist and The Internet Is for Porn are witty slices of modern life, but the show also has an inspirational theme, summed up in Purpose, sung by Princeton. "A lot of people come expecting the dirty puppet show — which they get,'' McClure says. "They get the laughs and that wild sense of humor. But what they don't expect is the sucker punch of heart that the show does have. A lot of people leave having cared about the characters a lot. I think it's that search for your purpose that everyone can relate to.''
A learned skill
Avenue Q is an unabashed homage to Sesame Street, with characters resembling beloved Muppets like Bert and Ernie and Cookie Monster. Several of the actors who originated the roles on Broadway had been puppeteers for the PBS children's show or the Jim Henson Co. But the pool of puppeteers who can sing and dance is shallow, which makes casting a challenge.
"For the last three or four years we have hired actors who weren't necessarily puppeteers,'' director Jason Moore says. "We send them to puppet school for a week, Avenue Q puppet school, to see who has the skill to learn how to puppeteer.''
Many talented actors can't get the hang of synchronizing a puppet with words and music. "Some of the people we like the best before we add the puppet into the equation really sink fast,'' Moore says.
McClure says that having the actors visible (they wear nondescript outfits) as they work the puppets is what gives the show its power.
"You're getting the best of both worlds. You're getting the larger than life performance of the puppet and the intimate, human performance next to it. What the audience, I think, does is subconsciously combine the performance into one really fleshed-out character.''
Puppetry is an ancient theatrical device, going back to the commedia dell'arte of 16th century Italy and England's Punch and Judy shows. It's the key element of another Broadway smash, The Lion King.
Carla Renata has experience in both shows. In Avenue Q, she plays Gary Coleman — that Gary Coleman, the washed-up child actor who in the show is superintendent of an apartment building (a non-puppet role). And for three years, Renata played Shenzi, one of the hyenas, in the Los Angeles company of The Lion King.
"Most of the puppets in Lion King are body puppets, where your entire body uses the puppet,'' Renata says. "The puppets in Avenue Q are forearm puppets. The only puppet like that in Lion King is Zazu (a bird).''
To prepare for her role in Avenue Q, Renata watched DVDs of Coleman as the sarcastic Arnold Jackson in Diff'rent Strokes.
"It's a spoof, and it's hard, because there's a fine line between me spoofing Gary Coleman and me just being obnoxious,'' she says. "I tried to come up with certain physical mannerisms that he has, like the thumbs-up kind of thing. Of course I'm wearing overalls and a rugby shirt. He wore rugby shirts on that show all the time.''
All the American companies of Avenue Q have featured a woman playing Coleman, but in the London production, he is played by a man.
The Avenue Q Web site (www.avenueq.com) has a long list of celebrities who have attended the show, but Coleman is not among them. "We have tried to get him to come and I don't think he is too pleased with it,'' Moore says. "Everything we say about Gary in the show is true. I actually think he'd like it if he saw it.''
In 2005, Coleman said he was going to sue Avenue Q for its portrayal of him. A lawsuit was never filed.
On the move
Avenue Q took a controversial detour on the way from Broadway (where it continues to run) to a national tour. In 2005, the musical opened in Las Vegas for an exclusive engagement outside New York, upsetting presenters around the country who wanted it for their subscription series. But the Las Vegas show lasted only nine months.
"We were hoping it would end better than it did,'' Moore says. "There was a time when Vegas seemed like it might be an outpost for Broadway. I think that shows that are language based aren't really successful there. Mamma Mia! and the Cirque du Soleil shows do better.''
At one point, Moore cut the production at the Wynn Las Vegas hotel and casino down to a single 90-minute act, eliminating intermission and up to 15 minutes of material. "Some things played better in Las Vegas than in other locations, partially because people were drinking. It was a bit raunchier, too, and that went over well,'' he says.
One of the concerns about a tour of Avenue Q was the show's small scale. Its Broadway home, the Golden Theatre, seats 780, whereas many venues on the road are enormous. TBPAC's Morsani Hall has 2,600 seats.
Moore, who is directing a new musical adapted from the movie Shrek (which will include puppetry), due to open on Broadway in December, thinks Avenue Q plays pretty well in large houses.
"The big surprise has been that the puppets read better than people from a distance, because their heads are twice as big, their eyes are 10 times as big, their mouths are 10 times as big,'' he says. "Even from the balcony seats the puppets look great. You can see them better than the people.''
John Fleming can be reached at
email@example.com or (727) 893-8716.