In ‘Avenue Q,’ puppets help test audience boundaries

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Are you part of the generation that grew up watching “Sesame Street”? Do you wish the long-running PBS show had grown up with you? If you do, you’re ready for “Avenue Q,” the Tony Award-winning Broadway musical that opens Milwaukee’s Skylight Music Theatre’s 2012-13 season.

The flesh-and-fabric quasi-fantasy about the challenges faced by young adults in a fictional New York City neighborhood takes on some tough themes with the fun and freedom that only a human-and-puppet cast can have.

The Skylight performance, which runs Sept. 21-Oct. 14 at the Cabot Theatre in Milwaukee’s Broadway Theatre Center, is co-sponsored by the ACLU of Wisconsin, Cream City Foundation and the Wisconsin Gazette.

Despite the fact that 11 of the 15 cast members are puppets – or perhaps because of it – “Avenue Q” is able to tackle some very adult issues, and not in polite or politically correct ways. Subjects such as homosexuality, pornography, racism and the quintessentially German concept of schadenfreude – deriving pleasure from the misfortunes of others – thread their way through this narrative about a young college grad who realizes that real life is nothing like what he’d been promised. There is even simulated puppet sex, meaning this is not a show for children, says out New York director Donna Drake, who’s coming to town to direct the Skylight’s production. “If you can’t deal with a range of adult emotions, this show is not for you,” she says.

The musical, developed by Jeff Marx and Robert Lopez, co-creator of “The Book of Mormon,” focuses on Princeton (Ben Durocher), a recent college English grad who needs to find an apartment, a job and a life. Unfortunately, he can afford only seedy digs on Avenue Q, a neighborhood so far downtown that it doesn’t really exist, Drake says.

“Manhattan ends at Avenue C, and after that everything is in the river,” she says.

Princeton’s new neighbors are a blend of people and puppets, and one of the show’s opening numbers – “It Sucks to Be Me” – is an argument about which character’s life is the most pathetic. Through the narrative, however, both Princeton and the audience members learn what it’s like to function as part of the extended family that a neighborhood can often become.

“This is about a neighborhood and all the wonderful people trying to get along with each other,” the director says. “If we weren’t so greedy and judgmental, real life might work better. The show offers gentle lessons that humans can learn from puppets.”

Members of the original Broadway cast, which included Rick Lyon and out actor and master puppeteer John Targtalia, earned their puppet chops as part of the “Sesame Street” cast. Lyon’s puppets, patterned after Jim Henson’s style of animated characters and used for the initial Broadway and subsequent runs, will be put to work once again in Milwaukee.

Tartaglia, a friend of director Drake, spent a week in town in late August to train local puppet actors how to properly handle their characters. “It is real difficult to become a master puppeteer,” Drake says. “It’s one of the most difficult things in the world.

The actors animating and speaking for the puppets are always visible and interacting with the human actors. The actors have to respond not to their live-action counterparts, but to the individual puppets they are manipulating.

The actors essentially mirror what their puppets say and do, with exception of the puppet sex scenes.

The fabric characters end at the waist, meaning some aspects of intercourse have to be imagined. But then “Avenue Q” as a whole requires an above-average suspension of disbelief, which is central to the show’s success, Drake says.

“With other shows you get into the heaviness of issues, but that’s not possible with ‘Avenue Q.’ The show runs the gamut of emotions, and you may cry a little, but mostly you’ll laugh. We poke fun at everybody and especially ourselves,” she adds.

Although a touring production brought “Avenue Q” to the Marcus Center for the Performing Arts a few years ago, the Skylight’s upcoming version is the first local professional production of the work. It’s a show Milwaukee is ready for, according to Bill Theisen, the Skylight’s artistic director.

“I had the great fortune to see the show early in its Broadway run, and I was enthralled from start to finish,” Theisen says. “It’s definitely out there, but its core has such heart that it is relatable to everyone.”

Theisen knows that the adult themes and profanity may offend some audience members, but he says that’s true of some aspect of every show the Skylight produces. Audiences have come to respect the theater’s choices, and Theisen believes they will embrace the show for what it is.

“I do think Milwaukee is ready for it,” he says. “It is a parody and so darn funny, but it comes from a place of honesty and warmth and the show will find its following.”

Skylight’s SEASON

“Avenue Q”

Sept. 21 – Oct. 14

“The Sound of Music”

Nov. 16 – Dec. 23

“Here’s Howdy Do

– The Mischievous

World of Gilbert &

Sullivan”

Dec. 31 – Jan. 13

“Edith Piaf Onstage”

Jan. 24 – Feb. 10

“Pump Boys and

Dinettes”

March 8 – 24

“Sing Me a Story”

May 3 – 19

For more, visit skylightmusictheatre.org.