The premise is simple enough. Use the "Sesame Street" format to teach 20somethings 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 choreographed by faculty member and Oregon Cabaret Theatre Artistic Director Jim Giancarlo, it is also impeccably performed and produced by SOU's Theatre Arts Department.
The young-adult predicaments of the neighbors on Avenue Q and the explicit lyrics of the songs might propel you out of your seat. In fact, on opening night, 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 one's bliss ("School for Monsters"). All of it is sprinkled with ironic commentary, such as "It Sucks to Be Me" or "Everyone's a Little Bit Racist."
Remarkably, there are only three "human" characters. There's Christmas Eve (Kate Spence), who is Japanese — although she is dressed in a Chinese cheongsam dress — and who scrambles her r's and l's but has two master's 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").
There's Brian (Kurt Langmeyer), Christmas Eve's boyfriend and a struggling, off-color standup comedian. And there's Gary Coleman (Briawna Jackson) — yes, that Gary Coleman, the child actor defrauded by his parents who is 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-spirit 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 are also 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.
"Avenue Q" plays at SOU's Centre Stage Theatre through June 2. Shows begin at 8 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays and 2 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays through June 2. Tickets are $21 regular, $18 senior, and $6 for students and can be purchased at the Performing Arts Box Office in the Theatre Arts Building lobby. Tickets can also be purchased with a credit card over the phone by calling 541-552-6348 or online at sou.edu/performingarts. For more information, visit sou.edu/theatre.
Roberta Kent is a freelance writer living in Ashland. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.