Where hilarity and satire meet

Human Race Theatre Company presents ‘Avenue Q’ at Loft Theatre

By Jacqui Theobald
Photo: Annie Kalahurka with the girl Bad Idea Bear, Katie Pees with Kate Monster, James Oblak with Princeton and Andrew Ian Adams with the boy Bad Idea Bear; photo credit: Scott J. Kimmins

Sit back and laugh your way through The Human Race Theatre’s engaging, energetic, wildly funny and irreverent musical with excellent ensemble performances. That the troupe includes puppets – sometimes two being manipulated and voiced by one actor at the same time – adds to the delight.

“Avenue Q” is on a far different block from Sesame Street, but its citizens bear a remarkable resemblance physically: people and puppets and problems. The inhabitants of “Avenue Q” use language that’s a little bit or more than a little on the raunchy side; words you know that you know.

“This is a technically difficult show,” Director Joe Deer said. No kidding! With the support of Puppet Designer D. Tristan Cupp providing what the actors called “Puppet Boot Camp”: three intense days when they learned the performance style; actor and puppet move as one, react to each other as people, speak and gesture in unison, they became adept. And the audience not only believes, it falls in love with every character, alive or … but they are all alive!

“Avenue Q” has music and lyrics by Robert Lopez and Jeff Marx, book by Jeff Whitty, with Sean Michael Flowers as music director and conductor and puppets by Zoot Theatre Company. Scenic design is by Dick Block. The show won three 2004 Tonys and is still running in New York City.

James Oblak – a Wright State University grad – sings and dances as Princeton – a naïve recent college graduate – and Rod – a closeted stock broker – and does it all with a gentle charm. That the puppets have very different personalities and voices adds to the challenge, and Oblak does it so well and seamlessly it’s hard to believe puppetry is a newly acquired skill.

Katie Pees – Resident Artist with the Race – also multitasks with even more disparate characters: Kate Monster – a kindergarten teacher – and Lucy – a very sexy puppet (her surname is Slut). If ever there was a voice and a talent made for musical comedy, it’s Katie Pees’.

To make the impossibility of being two characters at once – often while dancing – actually work, a “Second Hand,” Annie Kalahurka, and a “Third Hand,” Andrew Ian Adams, are essential. Their tasks are choreographed into the action, as they seem to attach themselves to an actor/puppeteer and literally glide together while manipulating half the puppet. It’s part of that technical challenge, yet the audience hardly notices, so skillful is the direction.

Kalahurka, who previously worked with Madcap Puppets, also manipulates the too brief appearances of Mrs. Thistlewat, and plays one of the Bad Idea Bears, adding goofy conflicts to already over the top situations. Adams is everywhere at once, though not really noticeable, except when he’s the other Bad Idea Bear, and clearly having a very good time.

Brett Travis as Trekkie Monster is a show-stopper every time he exuberantly growls his favorite line, “Porn!” In contrast, his other puppet is mild-mannered Nicky.

Three other actors, puppet free, do a fine job interacting with the puppet characters. Shawn Storms, WSU alum, plays Gary Coleman – yes, that Gary Coleman – and is another scene stealer in a show that is rich with such opportunity. She also serves as dance captain and can sell a song.

Playing an unlikely couple are Michelle Liu Coughlin as Christmas Eve, a “strong woman,” and Michael Thomas Walker as Brian, the object of her directives. Each has a featured song and puts everything into it.

The music is so catchy and melodic, as provided by a six-piece ensemble, the audience really may leave the theatre humming. Beyond advancing the simple plot, several pieces are effective social commentaries. Princeton sings “What Do You Do with a B.A. In English?” and several sing “Everyone’s A Little Bit Racist” – you just have to admit it. “It Sucks To Be Me” focuses on universal problems and frustrations and creates a sense of empathy. After two acts of searching for purpose and sexual identity, all are successful.

The puppets from Zoot were designed by Cupp, who was sent by the Race several years ago to see the New York “Avenue Q” production. Zoot artist Shirley Wasser said, “Tristan shows me his sketch and then I make them. It’s all about foam, fabric and glue. We used a lot of foam, and I did have help.” Some 25 puppets were made. Rather than change costumes, extra bodies are created. Cupp said, “There’s a lot of wear and tear too, and they get pretty beat up so we made rehearsal puppets.”

At play’s end, I overheard a patron confide, “I was about to get jealous when Princeton and Kate Monster were necking.” Her companion answered, “Humpf, they were doing way more than necking.” Two nude puppets were created for that scene. It is a tribute to the magic that no one doubts, though the puppets have no lower bodies.

Several of the actors and WSU professor Joe Deer said because it’s mostly puppets uttering those well-known four letter words or engaging in blatant sex, the effect is softened and acceptable.

At Friday night’s performance, undependable sound was a problem. The sound engineers believe humidity is the culprit, or maybe a poltergeist, and are working to stabilize the system. Don’t miss a show that makes naughty so nice, but do leave your younger children at home.

“Avenue Q” runs through Saturday, June 29 at the Loft Theatre, 126 N. Main St. For information or tickets call 937.228.3630 or go to humanracetheatre.com.

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Reach DCP theatre critic Jacqui Theobald at JacquiTheobald@DaytonCityPaper.com.

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