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Steve Feeney

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Posted: September 24, 2014

Off-beat humor, spontaneous musicality & puppets in Lyric Theater’s R-rated musical “Avenue Q”

Written by: Steve Feeney
 Courtesy photo

Courtesy photo

The Lyric Music Theater hit a high mark last season with an impressive production of Sondheim and Lapine’s “Into the Woods.” Now, to kick-off the 2014-2015 season, the folks at Lyric have filled the stage with another highly imaginative show.

Lopez, Marx and Whitty’s “Avenue Q” might not reach the psychological depths of “Into the Woods,” though it shares similar themes of young adults reaching for maturity. The Tony Award-winning show from 2003, in addressing generations of adults who were raised knowing the fluffy and often optimistic characters of “Sesame Street,” is a fun-filled confirmation that many basic lessons of life are still to be learned, even after you’re out of school and on your own.

Told with puppets that share the stage with their black-clad handlers and adult actors, the show forcefully disavows any connections to any of Jim Henson’s ventures. But the characters seem familiar in a pleasant sort of way. And the stage, set up to resemble a low-rent neighborhood on the outskirts of a city — local references have been inserted — is filled with off-beat humor and spontaneous musicality.

Under the direction of Jonathan R. Carr and with musical direction from Leslie Chadbourne, a Lyric Theater cast of locals has combined talents in puppeteering, acting and singing to make a complicated production flow seamlessly across the stage. This “Avenue Q” will entertain adults who can enjoy a show where furry creatures and their friends wrestle with situations and emotions which are all too human.

The characters form an interesting cross-section of youthful lost souls, eccentrics, has-beens and uncertain lovers, and the show’s humor definitely gets R-rated in more than a few places. But the overall message of the show, that good deeds and positive attitudes matter, is as sweet as can be.

The story centers around the puppet Princeton, given voice and movement by Joel Crowley, who sings that he doesn’t know “What to do with a BA in English” and is searching for a purpose to his life. The romance with neighbor Kate Monster, brought to life by Molly Harmon, is rocky at best. Kate’s desire to open a school for monsters may confirm that “Everyone’s a Little Bit Racist,” as one of the many clever songs contends, but it is also a goal that ultimately draws in most of the characters.

Among the others, Nicky and Rod, manned by Shawn Reardon and Torin Peterson, struggle with a friendship blossoming into something more. Trekkie, under the control of Owen White, is a growling advocate for porn, and Lucy, vamped-up by Ashley Christy, tries to seduce every guy she can. Rounding out the major puppet characters are the Bad Idea Bears, controlled by Kyle Aarons and Doni Tamblyn, who seem intent on undermining every good intention they discover.

The fully human characters include Christmas Eve (Alison Bogannan), who tries to stabilize the neighborhood as well as her husband Brian (Dave Ciampa). Finally, there’s Gary Coleman (Olivia Orr), the former child star who fate has relegated to a much less glamorous lifestyle.

A video monitor with animated accompaniment and other technical details orchestrated by an obviously talented Lyric staff sharpen the important points being made in the performance. It all combines to place this early-season show on the region’s don’t-miss list for lovers of musical theater.

“Avenue Q”

WHERE: Lyric Music Theater, 176 Sawyer St., South Portland
REVIEWED: Sept. 21, matinee; continues through Oct. 4
HOW MUCH: $17.99-$21.99 (recommended for ages 16 and up)
INFO: 207-799-1421; lyricmusictheater.org

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