TAMPA — The hottest ticket in town is for a community theater production of a glorified puppet show.
Even before opening night, every seat for every performance of MAD Theatre's staging of Avenue Q was sold out. Cathy Hooten, MAD's artistic director, said she's "the most popular person in town" because she's continuously fielding calls from friends and acquaintances trying to schmooze a stray ticket or two.
The people who had the perspicacity to get tickets early have a right to feel a bit superior: Avenue Q is a complete delight.
The 10-year-old musical, which is sort of a riff on Sesame Street and is simultaneously cute and cynical, astounded Broadway with its freshness. It mixes live actors with hand-held puppets — some modeled consciously after Muppets — and it's set on a run-down street populated by likeable but directionless characters. One says he started looking for an apartment on Avenue A, then worked his way back. Avenue Q was the first street with places he could afford. One resident is former child actor Gary Coleman, down on his luck and working as a super. (Of course, the show premiered when Coleman was still living.)
The songs are bouncy, with melodies that would be at home in a kids show, but with slightly edgy lyrics. There's one in which a guy tells his closeted friend that it's okay to be gay, another in which two buddies sing about the joy in experiencing the misfortune of others.
The MAD Theatre production is better than we have a right to expect from a community theater production. The entire cast is charismatic and has the singing and acting shops to carry the show. Perhaps most impressively, their puppetry was superb.
Avenue Q is an ensemble show with no real "star," and here the entire cast is wonderful so it's not right to single out individual performances. The entire seven-person cast merits mention, so here they are: Stephen Riordan, Melissa Doell, Marcus Blake, Caitlin Greene, Justin Havard, Heather Spillane and Gabriel McIver.
If you're looking for weaknesses, you might be able to find them in the harmonies, which aren't precise enough to have a lot of punch. But most people won't notice that, and the individual voices are fine. The singers are supported by a backstage six-piece band that's quite good.
On Saturday evening, it appeared that some of the audience members thought they were coming to the Straz Center to see the national tour of Avenue Q. (Hooten said that happens often at MAD productions.) Dressed in finery and seemingly perplexed by the small size of the Shimberg Playhouse, they may have left without knowing that this was "just" community theater. The production is that good, and it earned a standing ovation from the entire house.
Marty Clear can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.