Miami’s “Avenue Q” Not Your Ordinary Street

Think “Sesame Street on Crack” and you will get a little insight into what Avenue Q the musical is all about, now onstage at Miami University. Avenue Q presents a whole unique set of challenges for any theatre, especially a college theatre. That being said, Miami University’s production handles the show well. The most characteristic challenge is creating puppets that are humanistic and interesting enough for us to look at the entire show. As with the PBS hit series that teaches young children their ABC’s, numbers and other life lessons, this adult version of the avenue, continues to teach us, but perhaps topics that are just a bit different and perhaps a might naughtier.  With a book written by Jeff Whitty and music and lyrics by Jeff Marx and Robert Lopez (the same guys who brought us The Book of Mormon) this is not a show that will have you humming the tunes, however it will have you laughing and will definitely put a smile on your face and a warm feeling in your heart.

A bunch of racist, horny and sexually confused puppets (magnificently designed by Grant Lemasters in an homage to the late Jim Henson) from Avenue Q  are the “leading characters” in this musical that is very difficult to execute for a myriad of reasons.

The cast was led by a quad of four strong performers: Kelcey Steele and Taylor Hayes as Princeton and Kate Monster, and the loveable duo of Josh Stothfang and Sean Davis as Rod & Nicky (think Bert & Ernie meets Will & Grace). Princeton (Kelsey Steele), a recent college graduate with a useless BA in English, is trying to find his life purpose and through his foibles and follies, including some invasive Bad Idea Bears, the other furry and not so furry residents on the block are able to find new meaning in their lives. Of course this is all done through songs such as “Everyone’s A Little Bit Racist”; “The Internet Is For Porn; “If You Were Gay”; “You Can Be As Loud As The Hell You Want When Your Making Love” and “Schadenfreude”.

For their human neighbors, it gets no better than Cara Hihn as Christmas Eve who makes Hunter Dobereinder’s Brian all the more hilarious.   Then there is Sean Davis whose crisp, funny and vocally limber performance and puppetry with Nicky is better than the original Broadway creator of the role.

With a cast that innately understands the actor/puppet relationship and a technical team that lets the show seamlessly unfold, this is a production that could run for years.  The amazing part of this production is that the actors, who become puppeteers, do so to perfection, in no small thanks to the puppet coach Aretta Baumgartner. The vocals were spotty here and there, but never enough to get in the way of the story or characters. In fact, the puppets they handle become a true part of them and even though we see their actual faces as they operate the characters, we forget that it is the human we are watching or hearing as we are focused on the puppets in the play.  As stated, the technical side of this Avenue Q is near perfect as the puppets come to life in the design by Lemasters, and coached by Aretta Barumgartner.  It’s clear these actors lived with and through their puppet counterparts as seen in their ability to bring these characters to life with their acting and singing.

Gion DeFrancesco’s scenic design is reminiscent of the original; and as usual, This production is hard to say anything in the least bit negative about (with the exception of erratic spotlights and some sound issues)– it is solid from the beginning to the end with no downtime in between. The actors are having as much fun telling us this story as we are having watching it unfold. They have heart and they become very real to us.  So if someone can’t tell you how to get to that other street, have your GPS point you to Avenue Q at Miami University.