It's the nonverbals that will get you. Faces. Body language. Fluid felt.
In SNAP's production of “Avenue Q,” a best-musical Tony winner that mixes a cast of real people and puppets, it's the little gestures that mean so much in winning over the audience.
At least, that was the case at a packed Thursday preview, which drew gales of laughter at the profane dialogue, sexual antics and adult themes that turn this insightful show about contemporary city life into an R-rated version of Sesame Street.
Both puppet and real-people characters who live on Avenue Q are adjusting to the harsh realities of post-college life: struggling with jobs, sex and dating, and finding out they're not as special as their parents told them. In fact, their limited options are a bit of a bummer.
I had my doubts about whether actors inexperienced at puppetry could pull off such a tall order: acting, singing and moving around the stage while simultaneously making multiple puppets come off as living, breathing characters.
But Matthew Uehling, Homero Vela, Samantha Shatley and Kate Simmons, operating a total of 10 puppets, passed the test easily.
The puppeteers, dressed in black, are fully visual throughout the show. Their facial expressions, which perfectly mirror what the puppet characters are feeling, go a long way toward making up for essentially expressionless puppet faces in such a small, intimate performance space.
Inventive little puppet gestures were equally effective and at times priceless.
Both Vila and Simmons turn the Bad Idea Bears, devilish inner voices that goad the characters into bad behavior, into dependable laugh machines. Voice work from Vila and Uehling is particularly inspired.
Just as good are a nonpuppet trio. Rusheaa Smith-Turner is a scream as sarcastic Gary Coleman, the former sitcom actor who is now the landlord on Avenue Q. Joe Blackstad is jovial slacker Brian, who has trouble finding a job. J.K. Rogers is Christmas Eve, an Asian-American psychologist with a thick accent, stereotypically transposing L's and R's.
Playing with stereotypes is just one way this witty contemporary show (book by Jeff Whitty, music and lyrics by Jeff Marx and Robert Lopez) scores, with songs like “If You Were Gay,” “Everyone's a Little Bit Racist” and “The More You Ruv Someone.” Fairly graphic puppet sex is another.
But just when you're laughing hardest, Shatley puts a lump in your throat with an emotional ballad, “A Fine, Fine Line,” that brings insight and poignancy to the table.
A tip of the hat to director Daena Schweiger, puppet teacher Michal Simpson and music director Mitch Fuller for excellent staging, pacing and preparation. Voices blend in some fine harmonies, and recent respiratory illness in the cast was barely apparent (just once, briefly) Thursday.
Schweiger and set designer Shane Staiger also cleverly meet the challenges of the tiny performance space.
They make the impossible not just smooth but highly entertaining. The standing ovation was instant and deserved at final curtain.
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