By Paul Love
Although puppetry is a theatre form that extends as far back as Ancient Greece and, some argue, even further, for a lot of us, when we hear “puppets” we think of “Muppets”, and Jim Henson, and Sesame Street — the beloved award-winning children’s show that taught so many of us about counting, the alphabet, and navigating the ups and downs of childhood in the nearly five decades it has been on the air. In 1999, after the success of their Muppet-themed Hamlet parody, Kermit, Prince of Denmark, Robert Lopez and Jeff Marx began working on AVENUE Q, a musical homage to Sesame Street that deals with the trials of tribulations of adulthood instead of childhood, using puppet characters that satirize their Sesame Street brethren while respectfully tipping their hats at the same time.
The show is set on a fictional New York City low-rent street. Princeton is a bright-eyed young college graduate eager to start his life in the real world and figure out his purpose. His new neighbours include an assistant kindergarten teacher, an anal-retentive banker and his lazy, messy, roommate, a monster who believes that the world revolves around pornography, and some human characters: an aspiring comedian, a therapist struggling with the fact that she has no clients, and the building’s superintendent, Gary Coleman (yes, that Gary Coleman). The tenants, along with a handful of other colourful characters, face the challenges life throws at them in the hopes of bettering their situations, and they express their trials and tribulations through hilarious and relatable songs like "What Do You Do with a B.A. in English?" and “It Sucks to be Me”.
Whitby Courthouse Theatre’s production of AVENUE Q is, in a word, excellent. From the moment you take your seat and drink in Ian Handscomb’s gorgeous, richly detailed, lived-in set, the words “community theatre” become lost — from a technical and artistic standpoint, this show is professional grade. Lighting and sound are solid. Set changes are quick and purposeful. The video projections are enjoyable and add depth to the production instead of feeling tacked on. The crisp sounds of the talented live band bring the whole show up to a level that pre-recorded music — even by the same musicians — could not have done. Being a musical with puppets, any production of AVENUE Q would no doubt hang its success or failure on the quality of the puppets. In this case, director and puppet mastermind Monique Essegern really knocks it out of the park. These colourful and detailed puppets, each with its own distinctive personality — from the tightly wound, inward-looking Rod, to the giant bombastic Trekkie Monster — look as though they could’ve walked straight to the theatre from the set of Sesame Street. Essegern also shows off her directing talents with a very balanced, well-paced staging that moves the show forward, and always feels streamlined and organized, even when the entire cast is on stage together.
Since the puppets are designed to be voiced and controlled with their puppeteers in full view of the audience, talented performers are required to meet this daunting task. Each and every cast member rises wonderfully to the challenge. They manage, in their physical movements and facial expressions, to be an extension of their puppets’ personalities for the audience’s sake, but they also make their puppets’ “performances” so fluid and life-like that there are moments where we are only aware of the puppet and not the puppeteer. This is especially impressive in the case of puppets that required two puppeteers to bring them to life.
Todd Appleton brings across Princeton’s fresh optimism and insecure discomfort solidly through the entire show. Jessica Fodor does an excellent job of presenting Kate Monster’s warmth and sincerity, which is not an easy task in a show that features songs like “The Internet is for Porn” and “I’m Not Wearing Underwear Today”. Alexander Mantia gives a wonderfully neurotic, uncomfortable humanity to Rod, playing really well against Greg White’s hilariously clueless Nicky, with a voice that could easily be mistaken for Sesame Street’s Ernie. Kyle Roberts’ Trekkie Monster is enjoyably larger-than-life, with an incredible Cookie Monster-esque voice to match. Allyson Polidano gives us a raunchy, va-va-voom performance through her puppet character, Lucy the Slut. Special mention has to be given to the scene-stealing Bad Idea Bears, performed to hilarious perfection by Lisa Ferreira and Greg White. And the human characters deserve credit, too. Christopher Pezzarello and Olivia Jon are great as the lovable couple Brian and Christmas Eve, and Steven Suepaul is very funny as superintendent/former child star Gary Coleman.
A word of warning: this show deals with adult themes like pornography and sexual orientation, as well as being laced with language and explicit scenes that are definitely not for children or the faint of heart. But if you’re in the mood for a great musical comedy with the same performance caliber and production values of any show you’d see in downtown Toronto, then take a trip along Avenue Q at Whitby Courthouse Theatre at 416 Centre St. S. You won’t be disappointed. Remaining performances are February 15th, 16th, 17th, 22nd, 23rd, and 24th.