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CONTRIBUTED PHOTO The cast of CONTRIBUTED PHOTO The cast of "Avenue Q," which opens the 35th season of Muhlenberg Summer Music Theatre, June 10 and continues through June 28, Baker Theatre, Trexler Pavilion for Theater and Dance, Muhlenberg College, 2400 Chew St., Allentown.

Puppets show how to get to 'Avenue Q'

Wednesday, June 10, 2015 by LUKE MUENCH Special to The Press in Focus

Muhlenberg Summer Music Theatre 35th season opens

"Avenue Q," which opens the 35th season of Muhlenberg Summer Music Theatre (MSMT), is a cute albeit raunchy take on "Sesame Street," with puppet and human characters singing about pornography and racism.

However, the musical ultimately has a sweeter and more meaningful message than one would expect at first glance, focusing on identity and finding oneself.

The story follows a group of 20-somethings, people and monsters alike, as they struggle to find their purpose in big-city life and the world at large.

The show won Tony Awards for Best Musical, Best Score and Best Book (the "Tony Award triple crown") and ran for 2,534 performances on Broadway, from 2003 to 2009. It is still running Off-Broadway.

The show features music and lyrics by Robert Lopez and Jeff Marx, based on their original concept, with a book by Jeff Whitty. Lopez collaborated with "South Park" creators Matt Stone and Trey Parker to write and compose "The Book of Mormon," and he collaborated with his wife, Kristen Anderson-Lopez, to compose the songs for the Disney film "Frozen."

Highlights of the score include "What Do You Do With a BA in English," "Schadenfreude" and "I Wish I Could Go Back to College."

Bill Mutimer directs MSMT's "Avenue Q." Ed Bara is music director. Costume designer is Lex Gurst. Lighting designer is John McKernon.

The set designed by Curtis Dretsch features a row of two-story New York apartment buildings in a style that will not be unfamiliar to viewers of "Sesame Street."

Also like "Sesame Street," the inhabitants of "Avenue Q" include both people and monsters, and some of the people are portrayed by puppets, while others are actors. Actors who play puppet characters are visible to the audience, but their puppet characters do all the talking.

MSMT's production, opening June 10 and continuing through June 28, Baker Theatre, Trexler Pavilion for Theater and Dance, Muhlenberg College, 2400 Chew St., Allentown, will have many of the same elements as the original New York off-Broadway production as the puppets utilized in this iteration are being rented from the original. Additionally, the actors and puppeteers involved in the piece have undergone what is called "Avenue Q Boot Camp" in preparation for the piece.

"The biggest challenge is that the puppets are heavy, and keeping them in the air in an unnatural position for so long is difficult in terms of endurance," says "Avenue Q" director Bill Mutimer. "Most people think it's so easy, but they don't know what I'm talking about."

Mutimer says challenges for the actors in "Avenue Q" don't end there: "The non-puppeteer actors need to interact with the puppets as if they were people and not the puppeteers, something that's integral to make [the puppets] as human as possible. This is especially difficult for students who are taught to be an actor that communicates well with their fellow actors."

With puppet-oriented plays having so many components to consider, it's surprising that, of the three plays in the Muhlenberg Summer Music Theatre season, two of them, "Avenue Q" and "Grimm!," rely on this element so heavily. When asked about it, Mutimer says MSMT premiered "Gruff" last summer and had such success that it only made sense to try it again, only bigger. The main appeal, however, comes from how these pieces are more "contemporary" and "off the beaten path."

Mutimer says he likes the thematic elements of "Avenue Q" as the playwrights originally wanted the play to actually parody as an episode of "Sesame Street," but for adults, teaching them how to play nice with other adults.

The residents of "Avenue Q" include:

Princeton, a newly-minted college graduate and new arrival on Avenue Q, puppeteered by George Primavera;

Kate Monster, a kindergarten teaching assistant and sometime crusader for monsters' rights, puppeteered by Kate McMorran;

Christmas Eve, a therapist who moved to Avenue Q from Japan, played by Lily Randall;

Brian, a laid-back underachiever and Christmas Eve's husband, played by Dan Dobro;

Rod, a Republican investment banker with a secret, puppeteered by Luke Taylor;

Nicky, a bit of a slacker and Rod's roommate, puppeteered by Sean Skahill;

Gary Coleman, from TV's "Diff'rent Strokes," and the building superintendent, played by Cameron Silliman;

Trekkie Monster, a reclusive creature obsessed with the internet, puppeteered by Christian Dessler;

Lucy, a vixenish vamp with a dangerous edge, puppeteered by Morgan Reilly;

Mrs. T, Kate's ancient boss, puppeteered by Mariah Dalton, and

The Bad Idea Bears, two snuggly teddy-bear types, puppeteered by David Forbes and Meredith Kate Doyle.

The cast is composed of Muhlenberg College students and alumni, with their familiarity with each other adding to the already high level of rapport in the play. It's a particularly exciting opportunity for the puppeteers involved because they'll have the experience to be hired for other productions of "Avenue Q," having the appropriate training by having taken part in this production.

And Mutimer points out, "I think it's the great way to spend a hot summer night, come on out and have a great laugh, look at society and ourselves, and look at what this piece has to say and celebrate its message: living life that's happening now and is only for now."

Tickets: Muhlenberg College box office, Trexler Pavilion for Theater and Dance, 2400 Chew St., Allentown; muhlen-berg.edu/main/academics/theatre-dance/smt; 484-664-3333.