Originally Posted Online: Oct. 04, 2012, 10:19 am
Last Updated: Oct. 04, 2012, 8:57 pm

'Avenue Q' is Sesame Street for adults

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By Jonathan Turner, jturner@qconline.com

Photo: Submitted
Mike Kelly is Trekkie Monster and Tracy Pelzer-Timm is Mrs. T in the District Theatre's production of 'Avenue Q.'

"Avenue Q" is a heartwarming, idealistic Broadway musical about growing up, whose main characters are puppets. But it's definitely not intended for kids.

The irreverent, Tony Award winning show -- gleefully filled with profanity and adult humor -- makes its local premiere at the District Theatre in Rock Island tonight.

A review of an August 2012 production in the Columbus (Ohio) Dispatch said: "Charming and touching might not be the first words to come to mind for a musical with song titles such as 'Everyone's a Little Bit Racist' and 'The Internet Is for Porn,' and with graphic depictions of puppet sex, but 'Avenue Q' turns its raunchy, parodic premise into a musical with real heart."

"It's 'Sesame Street' for adults," District Theatre director Marc Ciemiewicz said this week of the original characters who look like Muppets. Even with the raunchiness, "There is a sweetness about it," he said. "There's a lot of great life lessons in the show. One of the main goals, everyone is still real -- yes, they're over the top, but they're still real."

Director, castmembers talk about 'Avenue Q'

"Avenue Q" -- which upset "Wicked" as the 2003-04 Tony winner for Best Musical -- tells the story of Princeton, a bright-eyed college grad who moves to New York City with big dreams and a tiny bank account. The only apartment he can afford is way out on Avenue Q, where everyone's looking for the same things he is: a decent job, stable relationship and a purpose. Eventually, Princeton learns to embrace the ups and downs of city life.

The New York Times hailed "Avenue Q" as "a breakthrough musical of a very different stripe. Savvy, sassy and delicious." and Entertainment Weekly claimed it was "one of the funniest shows you're ever likely to see."

A Broadway touring production played at the Adler Theatre in March 2011, but this is the first version to be done by a Q-C troupe. Mr. Ciemiewicz, a 36-year-old Circa '21 Bootlegger who's directed shows at theaters in Kentucky, Illinois and Virginia, saw it on Broadway, featuring his former roommate from a national tour of "Phantom" playing Brian.

His favorite scene is the "puppet sex" number, "You Can Be As Loud As the Hell You Want." "It's just funny," Mr. Ciemiewicz said. There are also some "very touching moments" in the show, including the number, "There's a Fine, Fine Line," and the end is "very moving," the director added. "You've gotten to know these characters."

"Avenue Q" is populated by a variety of actors who handle and portray the puppets, and three nonpuppet characters: Brian (played by James Fairchild), his Japanese fiancee Christmas Eve (Cindy Ramos-Parmley), and Gary Coleman (the building superintendent and former "Different Strokes" star, played by Andrew Cole).

The cast features Bryan Tank (Princeton), Erin Churchill (Kate Monster), Joe Maubach (Nicky), Mike Kelly (Trekkie Monster), Tracy Pelzer-Timm (Mrs. T, Bad Idea Bear), and Kelly Lohrenz (Lucy, Bad Idea Bear).

"That's become a challenge, since even the puppets need to be focused on the puppets they're speaking to," Mr. Ciemiewicz said. "The actors have a tendency to want to look at their fellow actor. They're doing very well. You will see lot of actors' personalities come through in the puppets as well."

District artistic director Tristan Tapscott (who's also in the show and did lighting and scenic design with Ms. Lohrenz) had these puppets specially made by a designer out of Chicago. "They have her own stamp," Mr. Ciemiewicz said. "There's similarity to the original, but they're not copycats of the original."

"I begged and pleaded to be part of this show," said Mr. Kelly, of Rock Island. "It's definitely the most fun I've ever had in a show. It's not about me and my facial expressions; it's about the puppet and his facial expressions."

"It's a workout mentally and physically," said Ms. Pelzer-Timm, of Bennett, Iowa, who's done many District and Harrison Hilltop musicals. "The puppets are very limited in what they can do, so I think I try to overcompensate."

Mr. Cole, of Davenport, is thrilled to make his District debut as Gary Coleman, a happy-go-lucky part he said is "the glue" that holds the show together. "It's kind of how I am in real life -- I try to give a helping hand," he said. "Words can't explain it. This is actually huge for me."

"Avenue Q" features music and lyrics by Robert Lopez and Jeff Marx, musical direction by Randin Turner and puppet design by Erika Frietsh. Mr. Lopez went on to co-write the hugely popular "Book of Mormon," which shares "Q"'s off-color humor and innocence.

"That's part of today's society. We often get reprimanded for language and adult situations, but they are part of today's world," Mr. Ciemiewicz said. "Theater is supposed to hold up a mirror to society."

To see a video about the show, visit qconline.com/multimedia.

If you go

What: "Avenue Q."
When: Friday and Saturday, Oct. 11-13, 18-20 at 8 p.m., and Sunday, Oct. 14 and 21 at 2 p.m.
Where: The District Theatre, 1611 2nd Ave., Rock Island.
Tickets: $20 (seating is extremely limited), available by calling/texting (309) 235-1654 or emailing tristan@districttheatre.com.