Wayward Artist taking patrons on a trip to ‘Avenue Q’
By Eric Marchese
When Robert Lopez, Jeff Marx and Jeff Whitty created “Avenue Q,” they struck theater gold. How else can you describe a stage musical that uses both puppets and human actors to parody “Sesame Street”? What’s more, the brilliant show uses this unexpected format and presentation to cannily address adult-oriented themes like racism, internet porn and homosexuality, doing so in uproariously comedic fashion.
The show was an instant hit that snagged several 2004 Tony Awards, and its popularity has led to nearly two decades’ worth of productions at every level of theater not just here in the U.S. but worldwide. Touring companies have also taken the show to other countries, and a school-friendly version of the script has been published and produced.
It’s surprising that The Wayward Artist hasn’t scheduled and produced “Avenue Q” sooner, but now that the company’s production is here, fans of the show can once again enjoy its outrageous humor and theatrical creativity.
Wyn Moreno first saw “Avenue Q” at a regional theater in Utah and, years later, in Ventura. “I view this show as a perfect ‘Wayward’ show,” he said. “It’s a story about community, about individuals taking steps into adulthood. We at Wayward serve as a proud steppingstone to some artists looking to make their first professional contract, so this story really resonated with me in that respect.”
The story’s focus is Princeton, a recent college grad anxious to determine his life’s purpose. Having no work history and armed only with an English degree, he needs a job and a home. He starts his search on Avenue A and works his way down, finally finding a pad he can afford on Avenue Q.
Princeton’s neighbors are kindergarten assistant teacher Kate Monster; neat-freak investment banker Rod and his slacker roommate, Nicky; would-be comedian Brian, who has just lost his catering job; Brian’s Japanese fiancée Christmas Eve, a therapist with no clients; the surly Trekkie Monster, who surfs the net for porn; and former child actor Gary Coleman, the apartment building’s super.
The bulk of the show’s irony-based humor derives from the way it draws a stark contrast between the complexities of adulthood in the real world and the oversimplified innocence of childhood depicted on “Sesame Street.”
Like an R- or X-rated version of the children’s TV show, “Avenue Q” liberally uses profanity and depicts puppet nudity and sex in addressing themes like coming out, pornography and deriving pleasure from someone else’s misfortunes (schadenfreude).
Moreno said that for him, the show is also “an artistic opportunity to stretch my comedic muscles, which is something I look for. I love to surround myself with funny people, and this project has brought together a very funny, talented cast.”
Moreno said he has wanted to direct “Avenue Q” ever since he worked with the “Audrey Two” puppets in a Cypress College production of “Little Shop of Horrors” a few years back. He said that being able to direct the show, with its combination of puppetry and content that pushes the envelope, is a dream come true.
The show’s principal cast starts with three actors who each portray human characters. The show’s 11 puppet characters are operated and voiced by four unconcealed onstage puppeteers. All of the characters, whether human or puppet, ignore the puppeteers, which creates the illusion that the puppets are alive.
Three of the puppet characters are unmistakable spoofs of “Sesame Street” figures: Rod and Nicky reflect Bert and Ernie and Trekkie Monster has the same voice and personality as Cookie Monster.
In the “human” roles, Moreno has cast Zachary Payne as Brian, Gloria Henderson as Christmas Eve, and Charis Tshihamba as Gary Coleman. Wyatt Hatfield, Myles Davis, Anyssa Navarro and Kelsey Redmond portray the story’s puppet characters: Hatfield is Rod to Davis’ Nicky and Navarro is Kate Monster and Lucy. Hatfield also plays Princeton and Davis is Trekkie Monster as well as one of the Bad Idea Bears, and Redmond is a Bad Idea Bear and Mrs. T.
Moreno said when he was in the process of casting, he was “looking for individuals who are creative, collaborative and exciting to watch” and that most of those he wound up casting “are improvisational masters.”
During the audition, it was clear to him “who came to play and who was interested in working with the others and not there to steal the limelight.” He said he was “lucky” to find just such individuals.
Andrea Decker is on hand to direct Lopez and Marx’s music and Sarah Ripper is the choreographer of the cast’s movements to that score. Wayward’s design team consists of Ella Nelson (costumes), Ashley Strain (scenery), Camilla Roberts (lighting) and Elsie Mader (sound). Makenna Green is stage manager, assisted by Alexandria Vargas, who is also the prop master. Moreno said Wayward is using puppets on loan to them from Long Beach Playhouse, commissioned in 2021 under the direction of LBP’s Jesse Bosworth.
Moreno cites multiple challenges every director of “Avenue Q” faces. First off, he said, “comedy is always hard, especially when you’re working with puppets. Every movement of the puppet has the potential of being either funny or strange, and it’s up to the director and performers to find the balance.”
Secondly, he points out “many sociopolitical traps in this show… and even though I handle certain moments with grace and care, there is likely to be someone in the audience who’ll be offended.” He said that “certain jokes in this show” are almost guaranteed to rub certain audience members the wrong way. One of the purposes of doing “Avenue Q,” Moreno said, is “to see what is really being said behind some of the humor. I hope to prove that it’s okay to laugh through the discomfort to find the insight and truth” within the show’s humor.
Moreno notes that in some respects “Avenue Q” is “no different” from any musical, while in many ways it’s vastly unlike other musical theater shows.
What’s similar, he said, are “pace and flow” and that “understanding what each song and moment are trying to do, and letting the audience go on that journey with you, is key.”
How it’s dissimilar, he said, is that “it’s a comedic, ‘thinking’ musical. Some musicals are just a lot of fun and you don’t have to exercise too much brain power to have a great evening.”
By contrast, “Avenue Q” prompts you to think about the issues it depicts. Moreno notes that in the same way “Sesame Street” prompts kids to think about who they want to become, “Avenue Q” “challenges adults into thinking about who we have become – and how it’s okay to be disappointed, frustrated, scared or angry, because everything in life is only for now.” Because of this, Moreno said, the show “can really be a whirlwind of emotions and can be stimulating to our souls.”
Moreno calls The Wayward Artist “the most intimate professional theatrical space I personally have seen in Orange County,” and that close proximity to the performers makes Wayward’s “Avenue Q” “an immersive experience.”
“These puppets and humans are in your face, crying in your laps, and audiences will truly feel ‘in the action.’ They’ll feel like they were just on ‘Avenue Q’ right along with us.”
Eric Marchese has written about numerous subjects over more than 38 years as a freelance and staff journalist for a wide variety of publications, but is best known as a critic, feature writer and news reporter covering theater and the arts throughout Orange County and beyond.
The Wayward Artist
Grand Central Art Center, 125 N. Broadway, Santa Ana
July 14-30, 2023
(657) 205-6273, thewaywardartist.org