I have to admit at first I didn’t get why puppets were telling the adult story of Avenue Q, a Tony Award winning musical currently playing at ProArts in Kihei. But from the first moment they come to life the characters captivate you, the puppets are the stars of the show and you wouldn’t have it any other way.
“It softens it,” says director David Belew. “Some of the language and phrases get softened coming out of the mouths of the puppets. The other thing is the creators wanted to make a ‘Sesame Street’ for young adults. This is part of the joke going along: You are learning life lessons for being in your 20s from the representatives of the characters you learned your first life lessons from.”
The show is a comedic look at life in your 20s, and living in the big city.
“The show itself,” says Belew, “I find to be very very funny and it says a lot about how we live our lives today and how we make decisions. A lot of the things that are obstacles in our lives, it approaches them in a funny and light way while still making a point. It deals with racism and sexism and homophobia. It deals with all of the things in a way that is palatable to a larger group of people. That is incredible in this day and age that you can get away with broaching those subjects in a mainstream musical. I find that writing to be really inspired. I was very excited to get a chance to take a shot at the show.”
The puppeteering really made things interesting in rehearsal.
“It just changes everything to be working and directing puppets,” says Belew. “Your actors all of a sudden are trying to do four things at once. They are not only acting and singing and dancing, now they are also manipulating a puppet at the same time. We relied heavily on our puppet master Stephie Garrett who came in and had experience with the show. She came in and she worked with the four puppeteers extensively and just really brought those puppets to life. It was a chunk of the rehearsal period that we had to build in to take care of that because you don’t normally have to worry about it. Then we were also working with the human actors to make sure that they are interacting with the puppets and not with the human actors who are in plain view in this particular show.”
The fun started in casting.
“Nothing was pre-cast coming in,” says Belew. “We had regular auditions. We did our normal song and dance acting and we also had puppets at the audition. We had everyone tell us a story using the puppets. Just to see how they would relate to it and incorporate that into their personality. That was a little test on the transition to using the puppet to tell the story.”
The puppeteers play multiple characters, to add another twist to this show. Logan Heller plays Princeton and Rod, both puppet characters in the show.
“I laugh about my first audition because I had not seen the show; it never registered that I was going to have to work with a puppet,” says Heller. “So when I got in there I realized, ‘Holy shit you are going to have to work with a puppet.’ After I got the part it was a whole new thing to tackle. Stephie Garrett, our puppeteer, happened to join the team and training became second nature. I was able to think of it as a dance. I was one fluid character with my puppets. I just had to forget that the puppet was in my hand and it was an extension of me. If I moved my head, my puppet moved its head. Without Stephie we would just be moving mouths and poking arms around. It was a whole other concept to act, sing, learn all of this, and make sure that puppet looks natural.”
Heller’s two characters are very different.
“The first character I play is Princeton,” says Heller. “He is fresh faced, just out of college. In my head I picture him as a 1950s stereotypical ‘geepers pops’ kind of guy. He has this line, ‘Gee I shouldn’t spend my parents money on beer’ and to me, if this guys says ‘gee,’ then he has no idea about this world. You get to go on this journey with him, that you leave college and then realize, ‘Crap, this is real life. What do I do now?’ It’s that age-old story that life isn’t a fairy tale but you can still make it work. I also play Rod, the closeted gay investment banker. He is a funnier role: a guy trapped in his closet and in love with his roommate. The classic Bert and Ernie joke, but in this case one of them really does want this to happen. He is repressed and uptight, but I had fun with Rod because of the comedy aspect in his character.”
Avenue Q is a coming of age story told by humans and puppets that you won’t want to miss. This is the last weekend of performances.
“The show is going really well,” says Belew. I have been thrilled with the reaction to the show. Several of the shows have been sold out. The audiences are really enjoying it. I got to sit in the back and watch the reactions and listen to the audible reactions that happen throughout the show. It has been really successful and it is selling well. The cast has knocked it out of the park. The work they did on the puppets, they are just so real and so alive. That is what makes the show work. When you stop looking at them as a person with a puppet and you really fall into watching the puppets and relating to them as real characters. I think that is the key that has made this whole thing work.”
For more information call 808-463-6550 or go to Proartsmaui.com to buy tickets.
Image by Jack Grace Photography