Before there was “The Book of Mormon” on Broadway, there was “Avenue Q,” the wickedly funny musical by Robert Lopez and Jeff Marx about the denizens of a New York City neighborhood, represented by “Sesame Street”-style puppets. Lopez later went on to work with Matt Stone and Trey Parker on “Mormon,” so the two shows have a lot in common. The gleefully profane and slightly more whimsical “Avenue Q,” however, will have its college debut in Maine this Friday when the Maine Masque performs it at Hauck Auditorium on the University of Maine campus.
Director Sandra Hardy is never one to shy away from controversy nor from a challenge. So when the rights became available for “Avenue Q,” she snapped them up and reserved the array of felt rod and hand puppets for this year’s spring musical. Then she enlisted Penobscot Theatre Company’s Andrew Frodahl — a master puppeteer in his own right — to teach her students how to make the characters come alive.
“None of them have ever done any puppetry before,” said Hardy, a theater professor at UMaine. “Puppetry is such a specific skill, and it’s something that can be very useful to these students as they go out into the world and try to work in theater. If you know puppetry, it’s something you can very much use to your advantage.”
“Avenue Q” is a show for adults and mature teenagers. With songs like “The Internet is for Porn” and “Everyone’s a Little Bit Racist,” the show takes an unblinking look at the foibles of contemporary society, from its relationship to technology to its way of dealing with — or not dealing with — racism, sexism and homophobia. It’s also hilarious.
“It’s certainly making people laugh, but underneath all that is a satire that’s very meaningful,” said Hardy. “It’s remarkable how timely this show is, and it’s almost 10 years old now. And as educators, we have an obligation to not only teach our students, but to provide insightful work for our audiences. This show works on a lot of levels.”
The show originally called for just six or seven actors to play all the parts, both puppet and human, but Hardy needed to accommodate a large pool of talent, all of whom deserved a chance to have an educational theater experience. To that end, she added in wordless parts for actors and dancers, choreographed by Penobscot Theatre’s education and outreach director Jasmine Ireland.
“We have four girls who are people on the street, and some more students playing homeless people,” said Hardy. “It makes the neighborhood come alive, and it gives everyone a chance to have the experience. It’s been an incredibly fun show for everyone.”
“Avenue Q” will be performed at 7:30 p.m. Feb. 10-11 and Feb. 16-18, and at 2 p.m. Feb. 12 and 19, at Hauck Auditorium on the University of Maine campus. Tickets are $15; free for students.