Rehearsing a stage musical is tough enough, but adding puppets to the mix ramped up the game for the cast of the musical “Avenue Q,” opening this weekend at Roxy’s Downtown.
“It’s a lot harder than I think any of us expected,” said Sam Warner, who plays Nicky (a slacker recent college grad) and Trekkie Monster (a surly grouch who surfs the internet all day).
“Avenue Q,” which won three Tony Awards in 2004, shows both the puppets and puppeteers on stage, which has proven to be a challenge for Ryan Schaefer, who plays Princeton (a bright-eyed graduate and the show’s hero) and Rod (Nicky’s roommate).
“It’s not only choreography with your feet and memorizing your lines, but it’s the movement of your hand to match your voice and your mouth,” Schaefer said. “You have to make sure the puppet is showing emotion and it’s not just a piece of foam on your hand just jumping up and down.”
Madi White, who plays Kate Monster (Princeton’s love interest) and Lucy the Slut (that’s how she’s listed, with no explanation necessary), had a semester of puppetry and masked theater study last summer at Wichita State University, but said she was still unprepared for “Avenue Q.”
“I think that the puppets are way more interesting to watch, and the actor behind the puppet just kind of amplifies the emotion,” she said. “I don’t think there’s ever a time when it’s distracting.”
“Avenue Q” takes place on a city street where humans interact with colorful, lifelike puppets. Any resemblance to a certain long-running PBS children’s show is certainly implied, but the content – colorful language, themes and even a brief flash of puppet-on-puppet intimacy – guarantees it is not intended for a young audience.
“It looks like it’s this fun, happy show – which it is – but it looks like it’s for kids. You associate puppets and the happiness with children,” said Kyle Vespestad, the director-choreographer who also plays Brian, one of the human characters. “The kids need to stay home.”
Roxy’s is rating the production “R.” A touring company landed at Century II for a Broadway Theatre League run in the fall of 2009 and a few other theater companies in south central Kansas have staged the show, but this is its first time produced in Wichita.
Vespestad said the adult humor is one of its strongest attributes.
“For one thing, it’s hilarious,” he said. “I think everyone is going to find something that they think is even funnier than the last part… (But) it’s not PC.”
“Avenue Q” won Tonys for best musical (beating out shows including “Wicked”), best book and best original score.
Vespestad said Dora Arbuckle “refurbished” the puppets into show-ready mode and that the cast of seven mirrors the Broadway production. While other companies have expanded the cast to include more performers, Vespestad is staying with seven, meaning each actor plays two to three roles.
“They’re always changing and running around. It’s very fast,” he said. “It does make it a little more challenging.”
The juxtaposition of puppets with raunchy material is a reason “Avenue Q” has become such a success, Schaefer said.
“It’s a lot of fun, and it’s humor I find really personally funny, so it’s been a fun time working on it,” he said.
When: Friday to May 5; performances at 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays; at 2 p.m. Sunday and April 28; and at 6 p.m. April 21 and May 5
Where: Roxy’s Downtown, 412 ½ E. Douglas, Wichita
Tickets: $20-$30, by calling the box office at 316-265-4400