Saturday, April 8, 2017

Eye-popping puppets teach life lessons at Boll Theatre

The inner child in me bubbled to the surface with excitement this past Thursday evening once the music started for The UDM Theatre Company's performance of Avenue Q.

You see, I love puppets and art of puppetry. I was lucky to grow up during the period I've often heard referred to as "the golden age of puppetry." In those early days of local children's television programming, the airwaves were chock-full of puppets every weekday morning (Sagebrush Shorty; Woodrow the Woodsman; The Friendly Giant) and afternoon (Lunch with Soupy; Jingles in Boofland; Captain Jolly), with national broadcasters getting into the act with personal favorites such as The Shari Lewis Show, The Paul Winchell ShowHowdy Doody and Kukla, Fran and Ollie.

There were many others, of course, including The Ed Sullivan Show, which often showcased the work of international puppeteers and ventriloquists. (Remember Topo Gigio and Senior Wences?) But among them all, the creative genius of one artist stood out from the other acts, and once his characters were featured daily on Sesame Street - and later, their own show - all the other puppeteers and beloved characters were pretty much broomed into the dustbin of history. That's how great Jim Henson's Muppets were, as they became the standard by which the art form would now be judged.

That's a lesson I learned the hard way as a producer in the late 1970s and early '80s. As a big-time puppetry fan (and puppeteer), I specifically included original puppet shows in the early seasons of my professional touring educational theater company. Although they initially sold well, the feedback we received - and the subsequent drop in bookings - proved what our audiences told us: "They're not the Muppets."

Flash forward to 2008 and the arrival of the much ballyhooed Avenue Q at Detroit's Fisher Theatre. Often referred to as "Sesame Street for adults" (despite the lack of authorization from Henson and the Sesame Workshop), I couldn't wait to see the show. Would it be like visiting old friends, I wondered?

Adult friends, yes; these aren't the puppets of my youth. And I wasn't disappointed. Nor was I disappointed by my return visit to the famous street this past Thursday.

The musical is a modern-day coming-of-age tale in which the show's early-adult characters ponder their lives and futures. (Sounds familiar, right?) But it does so in a format reminiscent of TV's Sesame Street, mixing live characters and puppets who use songs and flashy video to move the story along.

But unlike Sesame Street, Avenue Q is for grownups, not kids. Plus, the puppeteers are in full view of the audience, which presents a unique challenge to any theater that produces the show.

And it's on that basis that I judge every performance I see of Avenue Q: How well do the puppeteers do their job of convincing me they aren't there, and that the focus is on the puppet and not its manipulator?

For the most part, The Theatre Company actors do quite well in this regard.

Especially notable is Ashlee Armstrong, who plays Kate Monster. A professional puppeteer with Detroit's internationally renowned PuppetART, every movement is well defined, and Kate's mouth moves in total synch with the dialogue. And she's also mastered the art of never taking focus away from the puppet.

Also delightful is Joel Frazee's performance as Princeton. In particular, his voice is perfect for the character, and it never fades throughout the show. But because he is so animated in bringing the character to life, I did find myself watching him at times rather than the puppet.  (His facial expressions are priceless.)

The remaining puppeteers all do fine jobs, as do the three "live" actors who seamlessly interact with their furry and fuzzy neighbors. Especially noteworthy is Michael Adams as Gary Coleman - yes, that Gary Coleman. If you didn't know better, you'd swear he is the pint-sized, but now-grownup star of Diff'rent Strokes.

Musically, the voices are strong and blend well. And I'd swear there were more than four musicians producing the music, that's how great the accompaniment is under the baton of Dan Greig.

But at one point in Act Two, a weariness seemed to set in and the cast's otherwise close attention to detail seemed to fluctuate - so much so, that certain characters' mouths didn't move when they were speaking.

Direction is by Greg Grobis, with set design by Melinda Pacha (my favorite of hers so far this season).

The Bottom Line: I guarantee you'll leave the show humming a tune or two - IF you can still find a ticket! But be forewarned: Rough puppet sex can be harmful to the eye! (That's a reference only those at Thursday's performance will appreciate!)

Avenue Q runs through April 9 at the Marlene Boll Theatre downtown. Show details can be found here:

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