The premise is simple enough. Use the "Sesame Street" format to teach "20-somethings" lessons about the quandaries of the real world — you know, the world after a coddled childhood and adolescence and equally sheltered college years.
"Avenue Q," the multiple-Tony Award winning musical now playing at Southern Oregon University's Center Stage Theatre, uses all the sweet "Sesame Street" gimmicks. We have a mix of puppet and human characters and a selection of deceptively simple songs.
The result, however, is purposely outrageous, clever and very, very funny. Skillfully directed by SOU faculty member Chris Sackett and improbably choreographed by faculty member Jim Giancarlo, it also is impeccably performed and produced by SOU's Theatre Arts Department.
The decidedly young adult predicaments of the neighbors on Avenue Q and the explicit lyrics of those songs might propel you out of your seat. In fact, on opening night last Thursday, each seat had a "diploma" taped to its back, certifying that the "audience member has successfully completed the required course of study approved by the Board of Education for the State of Avenue Q in 'Did They Really Just Say That?' "
"Avenue Q," with book by Coos Bay native Jeff Whitty and music and lyrics by Robert Lopez and Jeff Marx, deals with everything from limited job opportunities ("What Do You Do with a B.A. in English?") to repressed homosexuality ("If You Were Gay"); from love gone sour ("There's a Fine, Fine Line") to following's one's bliss ("School for Monsters"); and social responsibility ("Schadenfreude" and "The Money Song") — all of it sprinkled with ironic commentary ("It Sucks to Be Me" and "Everyone's a Little Bit Racist").
Remarkably, there are only three "human" characters. Christmas Eve (Kate Spence), who is Japanese — although she is dressed in a Chinese cheongsam dress — who scrambles her "r's" and "l's" but has two masters degrees in social work. She is a therapist who can't keep clients because she solves their problems too efficiently ("The More You Ruv Someone"); Brian (Karl Langmeyer), Christmas Eve's boyfriend and a struggling off-color standup comedian; and Gary Coleman (Briawna Jackson) — yes, that Gary Coleman, the child actor defrauded by his parents, now penniless and reduced to being a building superintendent.
The principal puppet characters are Princeton (Jeremy Vik), a hapless English major; Kate Monster (Emily Serdahl), a nonhuman kindergarten assistant who dreams of establishing a "Monstersori School" for "young people of fur"; Rod (Corey Porter), an uptight and very repressed Republican banker; Nicky (Ben Larson), Rod's free-spirited roommate; Lucy (Erin O'Connor), a potty-mouthed femme fatale; and Trekkie Monster (Lucas Lee Caldwell), reminiscent of "Sesame Street's" Cookie Monster but obsessed with Internet porn. There also are additional and very funny puppet characters in supporting roles, including a duo of charming troublemakers and a chorus of UPS boxes.
The puppets are so well "handled" by their human actors that they begin to seem real and on their own. But make no mistake, it is the skill of the humans — as puppeteers, singers and actors — that carries the illusion. The onstage orchestra includes students Reed Bentley, Connie Gardner, Drew Giambrone, Gordon Greenley, Jennifer Schloming and Nic Temple. SOU faculty member Vicki Purslow is the musical director.
Lighting design is by Kate McFarland and sound design is by Cullen Wright. Emily Robinson is assistant director with Mary Meagan Smith as stage manager.
Performances are set for 8 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays, May 23-25 and May 30 to June 1, with matinees at 2 p.m. on Saturdays, May 25 and June 1, and Sundays, May 26 and June 2.
Tickets cost $21, $18 for seniors, $6 for students and may be purchased at the Performing Arts box office, online at www.sou.edu/performingarts or by calling 541-552-6348.
Roberta Kent is a freelance writer living in Ashland. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.