For decades, children have grown up watching Sesame Street, a wonderful place where humans and puppets interact — where every day is sunny and everyone is special.
Avenue Q, much like Sesame Street, is also a place where humans and puppets interact. But that is where the similarities end. Unlike its G-rated counterpart, clouds are not always swept away on Avenue Q. In fact, the folks who live there realize, now that they've grown up, that they aren't so special after all. Instead, they find themselves struggling to find their place in the world, while dealing with the anxieties of finding employment and managing relationships.
While the Broadway hit is too raunchy and crude for younger audiences, a toned-down, more kid-friendly version — Avenue Q: School Edition — opens Thursday at the Black Box Theatre at Nature Coast Technical High School.
The school's Shark Theatre production is an adaptation the Tony-award winning musical comedy that includes music and lyrics by Robert Lopez and Jeff Marx, based on the book by Jeff Whitty.
It tells the story of Princeton, a recent college graduate who moves into a shabby apartment on the New York City street, Avenue Q. He and his new friends face the everyday struggles of trying to find jobs, love and purpose.
The 17-member cast includes just three human characters; the rest are puppets who interact, much like on Sesame Street, as if human. They are animated and voiced by actors.
The show's director, Lori Erickson, theater teacher at Nature Coast, said she was excited to be able to put together the production.
"This is a great, upbeat musical," Erickson said. "It has a giant heart in the center. … The message is that life is not always what you think it's going to be. But the characters learn to discover, accept and realize who they are."
The show includes puppets borrowed from Alonso High School in Tampa. The set features a two-story brick apartment building designed by Nature Coast's technical theater director, Tim Erickson, and built by the technical theater design and production students. Local piano instructor LeAnn Champagne is the musical director.
"This is the most real show I've been in," said senior Julia Rifino, who plays Kate Monster, a kindergarten teaching assistant who falls for Princeton. "They have to overcome realistic problems."
In fact, Rifino said, one of her favorite numbers from the show is Everyone's a Little Bit Racist.
"I laughed a lot. I couldn't stop giggling," she admitted. "But it is something that everyone can relate to."
A favorite scene of Rifino's is the number It Sucks to Be Me, when various characters bicker over whose life is worse — characters such as Rod the investment banker and his slacker roommate Nicky, or human characters such as the unemployed Brian; his Japanese fiancee, Christmas Eve, a therapist with no patients; and Gary Coleman (based on the late actor), the apartment building's superintendent.
Rifino, who has performed in school and community theater shows, says her latest role is "ridiculously different. But I like a challenge."
Freshman Christian Gonzalez, who stars as Princeton, said that while he has owned a puppet, this is the first time he gets to bring one to life. And he says it can be difficult to stay in sync.
"It's like having two brains at once," he said.
For Gonzalez, his favorite song is For Now.
"I really enjoy it. It's bittersweet. It hits home that nothing lasts, everything moves on," he said.
The school version has a few changes in the script from the original show that won the 2004 Tony Awards for best musical, best original score and best book. And while a lot of the crude and sexual content does has been removed, the show promises lots of laughs.
"The crudeness is gone," Rifino admits, "but there are some innuendos the adults will understand. … The truth is shown in this show."