Avenue Q is a puppet show with humans. Or a human show with puppets. Whichever way you look at it, Robert Lopez and Jeff Marx's musical, now playing at Humboldt State University, is a smart blend of youthful angst and mature topics that brings to all-too-realistic life that treacherous bridge from student to responsible adult.
The storyline of Avenue Q — boy graduates college, comes to the big city, struggles with finding a place to live and a purpose in life (not to mention a source of income), meets all sorts of people he's never met before, falls in love, fears commitment, indulges in sexual adventurism, realizes the error of his ways and finds a purpose — is a modern-day parable. His interactions with the other characters teach him and those he encounters that love and friendship are both important, that mistakes can help you learn to be a better person, that money isn't everything and that everyone has value in the community, regardless of race, sexual orientation, economic status or any other "social differentiator."
My experience of puppet-driven productions has been largely composed of Punch and Judy and Dell'Arte's Grand Guignol shenanigans, so I missed out on the gentler messaging of Sesame Street and The Muppets, which is closer to the Avenue Q approach. But the common thread running through all effective puppetry is the ability to deliver important information in a universalized way.
This approach is particularly well handled in Avenue Q, where Muppet-like puppets are manipulated by visible and present actors. The emotions are human, as we can see the performers' faces, while the puppets perform actions that humans are not fully comfortable with. Indeed, some characters do not have puppets to help them, perhaps because they have reached a point in their lives where they are supposed to be grownups.
In the central role of Princeton, Jeremy Stolp is a delight. Not a student of theater but pursuing a B.A. in English — as his character has — Stolp brings a vulnerability and growing self-awareness to the role, not to mention an impressive vocal range. Nichole Riffenburgh, most recently seen as Mary Poppins and Morticia in The Addams Family in productions in Ventura, California, puts in a strong performance as Kate Monster, Princeton's friend/love interest and defender of the rights of all furry persons.
Among their neighbors on Avenue Q are Republican merchant banker and closeted gay man Rod (a wonderfully constrained William English III) and his straight roommate Nicky (a much-improved Victor Daniel Parra in a nuanced "fall-from-grace" performance). Next door to them is unemployed wannabe stand-up comic Brian (a very relatable 33-year-old Ryan Walker) and his Japanese fiancée, who rejoices in the name of Christmas Eve (HSU alumna Kimiko Nishitsuji in an enchantingly self-mocking performance. And then there's the secretive Trekkie Monster (Jesse Chavez, another HSU graduate, who pulls off the remarkable feat of making an obsession with internet porn seem cute). His is the most complex puppet, so large as to require a second puppeteer (music major and talented monster-controller Halley Rhouault) as his right hand.
Outside of the immediate neighborhood, Princeton also gets entangled with Lucy, the local all-around bad girl (Eizabeth Whittemore in an exciting debut — manipulating a pole-dancing stripper puppet while singing up a sexy storm is no mean feat), while Kate tangles with her supervisor Mrs. Thistletwat (the always-impressive Maude Jaeb).
Overseeing the properties of Avenue Q is Gary Coleman of Diff'rent Strokes fame, played by freshman Theatre Arts major Savannah Baez. Baez, while strong of voice, seems somewhat at sea in the role, for which I can't fault her since the purpose of having a real-life erstwhile celebrity play a building superintendent as himself is rather lost on me, too.
Functioning as a kind of traveling Greek chorus of mischief makers, the Bad Idea Bears (Camille Borrowdale, Stephen Contreras, Jaeb, Caitlin Pyle and Shawn Wagner) entertainingly tempt Princeton down a few dark alleys. Contreras also doubles as Rod's future love interest, and Pyle as the newcomer destined to travel the same road as Princeton as she defiantly declares "I know everything — so fuck you." Now, where have we heard that before?
Except for one small timing issue, Rae Robison's direction is flawless. Orchestrating humans and puppets around a complex, multi-tiered set requires a high degree of precision and control and she is ably supported by Elisabeth Harrington's music direction, Derek Lane's production design, Alexander Stearns' puppet design, Heather Bleu Karns' stage management and the many other artistic and operations staff. Credit is also due to the musicians: Zachary Pitnick on bass, Tyler Snyder on guitar, Jeremy Cotton on clarinet and alto sax and Liam Carey-Rand on percussion.
While some of the show's content is adult, it delivers an important and still relevant message of tolerance that's appropriate for high school students and up. Highly recommended.
Performances of Avenue Q continue at the Van Duzer Theatre Friday, Oct. 27 and Saturday, Oct. 28 at 7:30 p.m., and on Sunday, Oct. 29 at 2 p.m. Call 826-3928. Recommended for high school age and older.
Ferndale Repertory Theatre's plant-based riot Little Shop of Horrors runs Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m., and Sundays at 2 p.m. through Oct. 29. Call 786-5483 or visit www.ferndalerep.org.
A woman out of a job and in a rut seeks to hitch her star to an ex and escape her dead-end life in Boston's Southie neighborhood in Good People, running Oct. 26 through Nov. 18 at Redwood Curtain Theatre. Call 443-7688 or visit www.redwoodcurtain.com.
North Coast Repertory presents the Fosse-inflected meta-musical journey of Pippin, playing Nov. 9 through Dec. 9. Call 442-6278 or visit www.ncrt.net.