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These puppets are not for your moppets

The motley cast and crew from "Avenue Q."
(c) Carol Rosegg 2007
The motley cast and crew from “Avenue Q.”

The first lesson for being a puppeteer, other than just making sure you move the puppet’s mouth with your mouth is … no scratch that. Here’s the first lesson actor Robert McClure learned at a three-day “puppet school” for his role in “Avenue Q”:

“Step one was to make sure that our puppet inhales before it speaks. I thought, ‘If that’s step one, we’re going to be here for a long time.’ But I was happy to know that it was as complex an art form as I fathomed it to be.”

“Avenue Q,” the off-Broadway hit that turned into a Broadway sensation and surprise Tony Award winner for best musical, moved into the State Theatre  on New Year’s Day for a two-week run. It’s the latest step for a show based on a quite simple premise — what if the characters and creatures from a “Sesame Street”-like world found themselves in a far more real version of New York City?

McClure, who performed in the Broadway company before joining the tour, has an arm in two key puppets — central character Princeton, a newly graduated lost soul trying to find out what he can do with “a B.A. in English” and maybe find a girl puppet that matches his heart; and Rod, a straight-laced Republican stockbroker who is unhappy in the closet, but too scared to open the door.

Tougher lessons found on this street
Also in the puppet cast are Kate Monster, an idealistic young teacher and love interest for Princeton; Lucy, who threatens to steal Princeton away; Rod’s straight roommate Nicky; and the Internet-obsessed Trekkie Monster. Just like on “Sesame Street,” a few human characters are included. And just like that hallmark of kid’s television, there are lessons. Unlike “Sesame Street,” the lessons here include depression, racism and sex. (Needless to say, “Avenue Q” has not been authorized by the Jim Henson Company or Sesame Workshop.)

“The puppets can get away with saying things that people cannot. There’s an inherent innocence that allows them to say truths that others cannot,” McClure said.

“Avenue Q,” created by Robert Lopez, Jeff Marx and Jeff Whitty, premiered off-Broadway in 2003 and became an instant hit. McClure was part of that early audience. “I waited by the stage door afterward for autographs,” he said.

Lessons from hitting the road
In fall 2003, “Avenue Q” transferred to a larger, Broadway house, where it continued to do strong business. After the 2004 Tony win, a tour was expected. Instead, the producers took the show to the Las Vegas Strip. Amid the glitz and endless parade of Cirque du Soleil shows, the more traditional “Avenue Q” found it tough going and that version of the show ran for less than a year in Sin City.

“Context is everything, and I think people go to Las Vegas with a certain expectation of the kind of show that they are going to see,” said Thomas Hoch, the president and CEO of the Hennepin Theatre Trust. “From a production and acting standpoint, ‘Avenue Q’ is a complex show, but it doesn’t have that big glitz factor.”

This is no street for the kiddies
Moving outside of New York has brought the show to new audiences, sometimes inappropriate ones such as when parents miss the age 13-and-up recommendation and bring their young children. McClure usually can see the effect of this during a number like “The Internet is for Porn.” At that point, he can often see a small group of folks — usually one big one and several smaller ones — heading for the exit.

Still, those of appropriate age enjoy what they see. “I have found the audiences seem to be better and more responsive outside of New York,” McClure said. “A lot of people that we get don’t know what they’re in for. The gasps are twice as big and so are the laughs.”

There are moments that McClure can count on for both. “The puppet sex scene is always fun. And I have a song as Rod — ‘My Girlfriend Who Lives in Canada’ — that has probably the raunchiest line in the show and I definitely know the audience is not expecting it. We usually get four seconds of silence, and then 30 seconds of a rolling laugh as people realize it’s OK to laugh.”

Minglie Chen, Trekkie Monster and David Benoit
(c) Carol Rosegg 2007
Minglie Chen, Trekkie Monster and David Benoit.

Finding a home on the road
With an educated and savvy theater audience — though one not as judgmental as New York — Minneapolis is a perfect home for “Avenue Q,” said Hoch. “It’s doing well (in advance sales), but a lot of the work will be word of mouth. It’s that kind of show. We are anxious to get people into the theater and see it and then talk about it.”

“Avenue Q” also has a secret weapon for the 20- and 30-year-olds who are the target audience, but may not like the idea of taking in a Broadway musical.

“The creators set out to make a musical for people who don’t like musicals,” McClure said. “The number one complaint for non-musical people is that they don’t like it when the characters sing songs. If you grew up with ‘Sesame Street’ and ‘The Muppet Show,’ you expect the puppets to sing.”

And while it may lack the glitz and pyrotechnics of modern big-budget musicals, “Avenue Q” has a secret weapon — it has heart.

“Behind all its raunch and shock humor, it is a traditional Broadway musical,” McClure says. “It’s boy-meets-girl, boy-loses-girl, boy-gets-girl-back and that doesn’t get old. They come in expecting to see this dirty puppet show, but realize that they care for these characters.”

Ed Huyck is a Minneapolis-based arts and entertainment writer. Read his blog at noiseannoysminn.blogspot.com.

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