‘Avenue Q’ at Stillpointe Theatre Initiative

Avenue Q Gets an “A”!

As a child, I was obsessed with Sesame Street. I often wax nostalgic, thinking about how the delightful and whimsical Muppets taught me my ABC’s and about the importance of friendship. Thirty years later, a different set of puppets on a different street “taught” me that “The Internet is for Porn” and “Everyone’s a Little Bit Racist”—and yet, the Stillpointe Theatre Initiative still manages to do it in a delightful and whimsical way with their production of Avenue Q.

The cast of 'Avenue Q':  With CiCi Monáe, Adam Cooley, Ken Jordan, Danielle Robinette, Erin Adams, Lawrence D Bryant IV and Zoe Kanter. Photo courtesy of Stillpointe Theatre Initiative.
The cast of ‘Avenue Q’: CiCi Monáe, Adam Cooley, Ken Jordan, Danielle Robinette, Erin Adams, Lawrence D Bryant IV, and Zoe Kanter. Photo courtesy of Stillpointe Theatre Initiative.

The magic of this production started the moment I entered the Great Hall of the Emmanuel Episcopal Church, the location for Stillpointe Theatre’s run of Avenue Q. As I crossed through the doorway, an elderly crone puppet (wielded by one of the actors) croaked a hello to me and offered to show me to my seat. While waiting for the show to begin, I noticed the small face of a puppet peeking from behind the curtain, reminding me of my excitement and temptation to snag a look at the audience in my acting days. The production team for Stillpointe Theatre does an excellent job of making the audience members feel as though they are in the puppets’ world, so much so that it is easy to forget that the puppets themselves are not human.

With a book by Jeff Whitty and music and lyrics by Robert Lopez and Jeff Marx, the Tony Award-winning musical Avenue Q tells the story of a group of tenants in an apartment complex (some of whom just happen to be puppets), and each of them are suffering through their own set of struggles.  Puppets Princeton and Kate Monster are both looking for love and fulfillment in their lives.

Rod, also a puppet, is concerned that his roommate and friends will discover his true sexuality. Newly-married couple Brian and Christmas Eve wish for more success in their respective careers (or lack thereof), and building superintendent Gary Coleman just wants to finally recover after his childhood stardom has fizzled out. It takes some time and some rather gruesome mistakes, but the friends finally discover that sticking together can help them to reach the next successful steps in their lives, even if that next step is continuing to revel in one’s washed-up former celebrity status.

The incredible acting and singing talents in this show are especially exemplary considering that the majority of the cast must control puppets in addition to acting. Lawrence D. Bryant IV skillfully portrays the goofily optimistic Princeton, truly capturing the angst of a young adult going through the all too familiar quarter-life crisis of finding his “purpose.”  With a singing voice that is both sweet and strong, Erin Adams shines as Kate Monster, especially during her rendition of “There’s a Fine, Fine Line.”

Adam Cooley’s face is alive with so much expression that it almost made me think that Rod the puppet’s facial expression was changing as well, as he joined Nicky (Amanda J. Rife) in the kind and light-hearted “If You Were Gay.” Even though I will probably never look at Cookie Monster the same way again, Jon Kevin Lazarus’ Trekkie Monster’s voice and inability to stop talking about porn were absolutely hilarious.

Gary Coleman (Ciera Monae) teaches Nicky about laughing at others' misfortune in "Schadenfreude.' Photo courtesy of Stillpointe Theatre Initiative.
Gary Coleman (Ciera Monae) teaches Nicky  (Zoe Kanter) about laughing at others’ misfortune in “Schadenfreude.’ Photo courtesy of Stillpointe Theatre Initiative.

My personal favorite puppets, the Bad Idea Bears (portrayed and controlled by Nina Kauffman and Darius McKeiver) are so adorably wicked that I could understand how they would encourage anyone to make some bad decisions.

While some actors might have a difficult time keeping up with puppets onstage, the human characters did not allow themselves to become overpowered by the fuzzy colorful creatures. Brian (Ken Jordan) and Christmas Eve (Danielle Robinette) have a wonderful stage presence alongside their puppet-wielding costars.

One of the cleverest casting choices in this show is having Gary Coleman portrayed by the leggy and lovely Ciera Monae, a woman who is not only the polar opposite of the real-life Gary Coleman, but she also wowed the crowd with her soulful voice during songs like “You Can Be as Loud as the Hell You Want When You’re Makin’ Love.”

Music Director Stacey Antoine leads a lively band that accompanies the actors’ singing and also keeps the audience entertained before the show and during intermission.

Scenic Designer Janine Vreatt’s set was simple but meaningful with delicate Chinese lanterns and a fuzzy orange “Q”, indicating that this was a home for puppets as well as humans.

Christmas Eve (Danielle Robinette) teaches Kate Monster (Erin Adams) about the true meaning of relationships in "The More You Ruv Someone." Photo courtesy of Stillpointe Theatre Initiative.
Christmas Eve (Danielle Robinette) teaches Kate Monster (Erin Adams) about the true meaning of relationships in “The More You Ruv Someone.” Photo courtesy of Stillpointe Theatre Initiative.

Amazingly, all of the puppets (over 50 of them!) were designed by a local high school student, 18 year-old Michael Paradiso. At the end of the show, Director Ryan Michael Haase brought Paradiso out on stage to make sure that the audience gave this young artist all the praise he deserves.

One of the most poignant moments of the night came after the curtain call.  Haase stepped onto the stage to say a few thank yous, but also mentioned that after all of the turmoil of the past month, Baltimore truly needs shows like Avenue Q right now. In his words, “Baltimore needs to laugh a little bit.” Because of Haase’s excellent direction, the jubilant actors and festive puppets, I think that Baltimore can finally allow itself to take a few minutes and just laugh.

Running Time: Two hours plus one 15-minute intermission.

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Avenue Q runs plays through June 6, 2015 at Stillpointe Theatre Initiative performing at the Emmanuel Episcopal Church – 811 Cathedral Street, in Baltimore, Maryland.  For tickets, purchase them online.

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