It’s difficult to put on an entertaining and humorous performance for grown ups using puppets.
It’s even more challenging to do so on a small stage in an intimate theater space.
The Backstage Theatre in Breckenridge, however, pulls off the feat brilliantly in this summer’s production of “Avenue Q.”
With a vibrant, seven-person cast of visiting actors, dynamic set and hint of Summit County flavor, director Christopher Willard presents the Tony Award winner for Best Musical with skill and creativity that will win over first-timers and meet every expectation of those loyal to the show.
“Avenue Q” is a not-for-kids comedy that follows Princeton, a recent grad and proud owner of a B.A. in English, through those first confusing, frightening and disenchanting months after college. In much the same way Sesame Street teaches youngsters the basics, the production introduces its young hero to the complexities (“Everyone’s a Little Bit Racist”), hard facts (“It Sucks to Be Me”) and irreverent truths (“The Internet Is for Porn”) of the real world. As Princeton searches for love, his purpose and a way to pay his bills, he encounters a motley crew of neighbors, including the out-of-work Brian and his fiancée, Christmas Eve; just friends and roommates Nicky and Rod; and the cute monster-next-door Kate, brought to life by a carefully assembled professional cast that makes magic in the arena of R-rated stage puppetry.
The puppets are the cornerstone of the production’s comedic value. Without a flawless performance from them, the show doesn’t work. But bringing together countless iterations of inanimate cast members who aren’t great at costume changes is a challenge, Willard said. There are more than 10 versions of Princeton alone. The performers, several of whom had prior experience with “Avenue Q,” attended a puppet training camp in preparing for the production to learn to bring to life their alter egos.
Carolyn Lohr lights up the stage as Kate Monster and her rival, Lucy the Slut, two opposing personalities that present the added challenge of at times having to be performed in the same scene at the same time as they both vie for the attention of the bright-eyed Princeton. Leslie Randle Chapman has mastered the art of being the second hand or standing orchestrator behind staging that frequently calls for two people to play a single puppet. Her role is virtually silent but crucial to the successful execution of the performance. It is uncommon for a stage production to have no real star, intentional or otherwise, but the Backstage’s “Avenue Q” is that kind of anomaly. The cast operates as a well-choreographed team that lets the puppets steal the show, to their own credit as well as Willard’s.
For the Backstage Theatre, “Avenue Q” heralds the beginning of a new chapter with “bigger and better” things to come.
The nonprofit performance organization received a $1.3 million grant from the town of Breckenridge earlier this year to enhance the building and expand the stage. Willard said the renovation will open new doors for the Backstage, allowing the theater to put on more musicals and original plays and more elaborate performances.
“These improvements will give much more flexibility to the Breckenridge Backstage Theatre on all levels — occupancy, programming, staging,” Willard said in a news release on the changes. “We’re excited to welcome new energy and ideas to help the theater realize its vision for this new phase of growth.”
Willard and the Backstage board officially announced the theater’s new chapter at the sold-out opening night performance of “Avenue Q.”
The show runs through July 14.