In rehearsal the other day at the Lyric Stage Company, director Spiro Veloudos had something very important to say to Nicky, an animated performer wearing an orange hoodie. But Nicky likes to talk. And talk. And talk some more. So Veloudos had to repeat himself several times.
And that’s when he realized: “Oh my God, I’m talking to a puppet,’’ the director recalls during a recent interview, slapping his head. “I think I’m losing it.”
Nicky is just one of many Muppet-style creatures in “Avenue Q,” the wildly irreverent Tony Award-winning musical that opens officially Sunday and runs through June 24 at the Lyric. Veloudos and his cast are not just talking to the furry monsters. They are treating them like colleagues, even friends. “They’re not just pieces of felt on the ends of an actor’s hand,’’ Veloudos says. “The actors are taking inanimate creatures and breathing life into them. And we’re starting to deal with them as if they are real.’’
Phil Tayler, who voices the character of the charming slacker Nicky, has grown rather attached to the creature. “The first time I put my puppet on, I turned into a 12-year-old on caffeine,” he says.
Veloudos first saw “Avenue Q” when it opened in New York in 2003, and he has wanted to produce it ever since. Conceived by Robert Lopez and Jeff Marx, the musical is (very) loosely based on “Sesame Street,’’ the precious public television show that has been teaching tots their ABCs for more than four decades. It features a group of 20-somethings — played by both actors and puppets — who live in a neighborhood that is decidedly more downtown than the sunny street that is home to such cultural icons as Ernie and Elmo.
The residents are a motley crew. Three human characters don’t use puppets: a young couple — he’s unemployed, she speaks with a thick accent — and Gary Coleman. (“Yes,” the script notes, “that Gary Coleman,” the late child star of the sitcom “Diff’rent Strokes,” here a down-on-his-luck adult.) Four more actors use different puppets to play several roles, including adorable monsters, young searchers, a pair of Bad Idea Bears, and a vixen named Lucy the Slut.
The denizens of this avenue are searching for the Meaning of Life, and they face the usual questions of young folks who are coming of age. How do I get a job with a BA in English? How do I scrape up the rent? What’s my purpose? And, gee, aren’t we all a little bit racist?
That last question is asked in just one of many songs that explode the “We Are the World” aesthetic of “Sesame Street.” While a character on the children’s show might say, “The Internet is for learning,” the folks in the musical will tell you, “The Internet is for porn.” Outrageous tunes are sung in a zippy upbeat way, and the actors can get away with things that would be scandalous if they weren’t using the lovable living dolls. “Puppets often say things that people can’t,’’ says Roxanna Myhrum, the show’s puppet coach, who is also the artistic director of Brookline’s Puppet Showplace Theatre. “They are an amazing force in storytelling. There are moments when everyone knows what needs to be said, and they all look to the thing that isn’t alive. If the puppet says it, that is OK.”
Tayler agrees. “You can’t argue with them because they’re so darn cute,” he says.
When Veloudos secured the rights to the play, he took a class at the Puppet Showplace. It didn’t take long for him to discover how hard it is to walk and talk and lip-synch while manipulating a cuddly fellow. “It looks easy, but, boy, is it difficult,’’ he says. That’s why he brought on Myhrum to work with his young cast members, who are trained in musical theater, not puppetry.
Myhrum is protective of the art form, and she has been working with the actors to make sure they don’t resort to “dolly waggling.” She can spend an hour of rehearsal time coaching the actors in how to perform such seemingly simple movements as walking down steps or opening a door with a monster attached to an arm. “It’s hard and messy — and humbling,” Tayler says.
Clearly, the craft isn’t child’s play — and the play isn’t for the kiddies, either. In addition to lyrics that would shock your grandmother back in Kansas, the show also features “puppet nudity” and “simulated puppet sex.” And that’s what makes the rehearsal process so much fun. “It takes this great cultural icon — ‘Sesame Street,’ if you will — and turns it into a place for adults who just graduated from college,’’ Veloudos says. “I love the irreverence of it.”
And so it seems to make perfect sense when Veloudos gives notes to inanimate objects. The puppets, after all, have become respected colleagues at the intimate theater. They have their own dressing rooms (one for the boys, one for the girls), and there is even a “puppet wrangler” who will help them with costume changes during performances. “They can’t take care of themselves when they’re offstage,’’ explains Kaitee Tredway, who is in charge of wardrobe for the non-human performers. “Just like real actors, they require maintenance and time to do their hair.’’
And at least one of the human actors is going to have a hard time letting go of his furry friend when the show’s run is over. Tayler has discovered a new calling, and he plans to take classes in puppetry in the near future. He and Nicky are having a bit of a bromance. “Oh man, I miss him every time I take him off,’’ Tayler says.Patti Hartigan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
The print version of this story gives a different end date for Lyric Stage Company’s production of “Avenue Q” because the theater extended the run after the Arts section went to press.