The Norman Transcript
NORMAN — Today’s teenagers (and their families) continue to believe a college degree guarantees professional success and living the American Dream. The University of Oklahoma’s current musical “Avenue Q” begs to differ.
Conceived by Robert Lopez and Jeff Marx, their music and lyrics were expanded by Jeff Whitty’s book into what can only be called an in-your-face musical that throws out the book of politically correct. In fact, puppets are the medium chosen by Yale graduate Lopez and New York Bar lawyer Marx to satirize Generation Xers and their quarter-life crises.
Cast members assigned puppets either voice and/or act one of nine characters. The puppet faces are equivalent to an average human with a miniaturized body that fits easily over a puppeteer’s hand and forearm.
Shawn Churchman, director and choreographer, changes very little from the 2004 Tony Triple Crown for best musical, best score and best book. In just less than two months, Churchman — with the aid of guest puppeteer instructor Cullen R. Titmas — transformed musical theatre majors into puppeteers.
Having seen the original Broadway cast, I can attest that OU performers Jamie Butemeyer, Ethan Kahn, Courtney Nevin and understudy Aaron Bourdreaux (for the ill Ethan Spell) moved with the same ease between the various puppet roles and often pushed my attention to watching the puppet over their own animated faces.
Lawton native and OU senior Butemeyer plays Kate Monster and Lucy T. Slut. In the blink of eye, she moves between the unassuming teacher Kate and, shall we say, experienced Lucy. Her voice dipping down for a sultry effect, it is clear by voice alone when Butemeyer is portraying Kate and Lucy. Butemeyer’s gorgeous singing voice fills a room without force.
Kahn plays three characters, ranging in size from a child’s teddy bear to Oscar the Grouch. Often aided by Nevin to perform Trekkie Monster, the two actors sync their movements, with Nevin gently holding Kahn’s back with Trekkie extended in front of them each playing a single hand.
Churchman’s program notes are quite helpful in understanding how the Sesame Street-like setting softs the musical’s foul-language and provocative on-stage actions in a familiar childhood setting that taught lessons to so many Gen Xers every day after school.
“In theatrical tradition, puppets have always given voice to utterances too dangerous or unpopular for a human to voice. So a puppet, by its nature, is an extension of our inner-self —able to say what we would like to say but that political correctness and good manners requires us to silence.”
“Avenue Q” tells the story of Princeton, named to symbolize all college grads, and the new friends he makes on the only street he can afford an apartment. Ready and eager to start his new job, Princeton receives a call that company layoffs have eliminated his position. The next two-and a-half hours are spent helping Princeton and his Generation X neighbors redefine their “purpose.”
Act 2’s number “I Wish I Could Go Back to College” summarizes the characters’ feelings of aimlessness. “In college, you know who you are,” they all sing together. Like Sesame Street after school, college was defined and predictable, with a Pollyanna optimism that everything will be OK if one just learns. In the end, Princeton and his post-college friends learn that it is not about dreams coming true but enjoying the now.
Do not let the musical’s use of puppetry trick you into thinking this is light-hearted mockery. This is not a musical to try out. The musical’s creators intend an adult audience, and the show’s R-rating supports their vision.
“Adults love ‘Avenue Q;’ However, it may not be appropriate for younger children because ‘Avenue Q’ addresses issues like sex, drinking and surfing the web for porn. It’s hard to say what exact age is right to see ‘Avenue Q’ — parents should use their discretion based on the maturity level of their children. Rated R, Restricted — children under the age of 17 require accompanying parent or adult guardian,” Sandra Bent wrote in a press release.
The production’s overall positive message has a universal message regarding adulthood and its various challenges that no classroom learning will ever fully prepare one for. Again, Churchman says it best: “It is this ‘golden moment’ of young adulthood so hilariously expressed in ‘Avenue Q’ that is the real secret to its success. I mean, you don’t have to be a Gen X’er to have a bad day and exclaim, ‘It sucks to be me!’”
“Avenue Q” runs 8 p.m. today and Friday and 3 p.m. Sunday at Rupel J. Jones Theatre, 563 Elm Ave.
For tickets, call the Fine Arts ticket office at 325-4101. Tickets are $30 adult, $25 seniors/OU faculty and staff/military, and $15 students with ID.
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