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It's no overstatement to say that "Avenue Q" — one of the biggest musical hits in decades — is one the most highly anticipated shows of the Arkansas Repertory Theatre's current season. The musical, which opened on Broadway in March 2003, ran for more than six years and 2,500 performances. It won three Tony Awards in 2004 (out of six nominations), for Best Musical, Best Book and Best Original Score. Critics and audiences raved, and the show went on to gross more than $117 million.
For those of you who aren't familiar with "Avenue Q," it stars a passel of puppets that cuss, drink too much and sing songs with titles such as "The Internet is for Porn" and "I'm Not Wearing Underwear Today." Most folks are already familiar with the hit musical, thus the excitement (plus there's the Arkansas connection: Fayetteville native Jason Moore directed the original production).
When announcing this season last year, Rep Artistic Producing Director Bob Hupp said he'd been trying to get the rights to produce the musical for six years. "Yes, there is some puppet sex in the show," he acknowledged.
So this is not the Rep production to bring your kids to, puppets or no. But director Robert Harper, who helmed "Avenue Q" in 2011 at the Phoenix Theatre, where he is associate artistic director, said he thinks the overall message at the heart of the story will shine through and connect with audiences, even in a more conservative state like Arkansas.
"I think the challenge of doing a show like this — that's not necessarily in a metropolitan area — is to pay close attention to the heart of the piece and the message, so that you are really landing the original intent and not making the subject matter or the language the star," he said. "It's really about this group of monsters and humans and human puppets all coming together, creating a community and helping each other through this crazy time called 'after college' when you're trying to find yourself and deciding what your purpose is."
Without giving away too much, the storyline centers on a recent English grad named Princeton. He needs to find an apartment in the city. He starts looking at Avenue A, but can't find anything he can afford until he works his way down to Avenue Q, which looks like a neglected version of Sesame Street, Harper said. Princeton finds a love interest in Kate Monster, but, as so often happens in real life, things get complicated.
Other characters of note: Rod the (perhaps closeted) Republican, Trekkie the porn-loving monster, Mrs. Thistletwat, the Bad Idea Bears, Lucy the Slut and, uh, Gary Coleman.
So what is it like for the actors who must not only portray these roles, but also operate the puppets and bring them to life onstage while remembering their lines, songs, blocking and more?
"Ridiculously hard," said Bailey Means, who plays Kate Monster and Lucy the Slut.
Ethan Paulini (who was in the Rep's productions of "White Christmas," "The Who's Tommy" and "The Full Monty") had done "Avenue Q" previously, but as part of a summer stock season, "so it was very fast and furious," he said. "This is a lot more of a process and a lot more detailed. The last time I did it, we didn't get to work with Rick Lyon."
Lyon, a puppeteer who worked for many years for the Jim Henson Co., designed the puppets for "Avenue Q." He also originated the roles of Nicky, Trekkie and one of the Bad Idea Bears, and he worked with the Rep's cast on learning how to bring the puppets to life.
"It was amazing," Paulini said of working with Lyon, "just the attention to detail and the tiny little things that can make such a huge difference between it being a puppet and being alive."
Will Holly, also a Rep veteran, echoed that sentiment.
"He started with the bare bones basics," Holly said. "We were just looking in the mirror with our hands like this ... we would have little eyeballs on our fingers to give it focus and we just worked on simply syllables at first — counting, singing, making sure that the words were coming out correctly." After that they worked on head movements and the sort of subtler gestures that really bring a puppet to life, he said.
And the fact that it is puppets delivering these at times profanity-strewn lines makes it funnier and more direct than if it were humans saying them, Means said.
"If it was just humans giving this message," Leah Monzillo (Mrs. T, a Bad News Bear) said,"in the way that it's given in the show, nobody would enjoy it for two hours."
Harper noted that in polite society, sometimes we're "trained to be too careful with some subject matter." At times, political correctness and social niceties can hinder communication. But when it's a puppet talking about a taboo subject — say, Internet porn or loud sex — people are more open and able to laugh and be honest.
"I really do think the big message of this piece is that your purpose is oftentimes helping the people you love and giving of yourself in service, whatever that means to you," Harper said. "Because, as humans, I think that's where we can make the biggest difference."
"Avenue Q" opens Friday and runs through June 30, with performances at 7 p.m. Wednesdays, Thursdays and Sundays, 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays and 2 p.m. Sundays. Tickets are $25-$50.