Rob Henry and Brian Seaman, founders of Mazeppa Productions, the newest resident musical theater company in Philadelphia, offer an oasis of entertainment in the Sahara of theater’s summer down-time with the multiple-award-winning AVENUE Q. Director Rob Henry’s experience in children’s theater pays off in the unfussy directness of this cute puppet and people show—but it’s not one for the kiddies.
The musical progresses according to traditional structure, initially laying out in song what the main characters want, and sketching the general situation. Mike Dorsey, who shines as a young guy named Princeton, searches for meaning and sings a plaintive song, “Purpose”. The company performs “It Sucks To Be Me”, and the show proceeds with big noisy numbers along with pensive ones. “There’s a Fine, Fine Line”, sensitively delivered by Angela Leone as Kate, hits the de rigueur worrisome note at the end of act one, providing a problem that will have to be addressed in act two.
AVENUE Q features old fashioned self-contained songs, but reveals its contemporary relevance by drawing only provisional conclusions. Unlike a grand-scale musical with BIG ambitions and all the answers, AVENUE Q carries its freight lightly. Puppets and monsters and well-meaning characters de-fang race and sex issues.
Sample song titles tell the story:
Race: “Everyone’s a Little Bit Racist”;
Gays: “If you were Gay”;
Youth longing for connection: “I Wish I Could go Back to College”;
Sex and raunch (with outrageous puppet rumpy-pumpy): “You Can be as Loud as the Hell You Want” and “The Internet is for Porn”.
And of course, there’s Love: “There’s a Fine Fine Line” and “The More You Ruv Someone (the more you want to kill ’em)”.
Many more neat little songs are packed into this bundle.
No well-known Philly theater veterans headline the cast or production team. The young cast and designers appear to have sprung, Athena-like from the head of Zeus—fully grown and armed to the teeth. Leads Dorsey and Leone are talents to be reckoned with. And It’s hard to take your eyes off performers like robust Lauren Elysse Fitzgerald, Bren Thomas, and slick Stephanie Walters.
Eric Thompson, musical director, directs live singing to recordings of Stephen Oremus’s original orchestrations of the Marx & Lopez numbers. The actors’ versatile, appealing voices can sound either ‘real’ and super melodious, or come off as flattened-out, comic puppet voices – particularly notable is Sam Nagel’s talent with puppet voices. Well directed and choreographed stage action shows poise and polish within a well-articulated shallow set brightened by Julia Poiesz’s standout costumes. Patrick Ahearn’s muppet-ish puppets take center stage, and delight.
Mazeppa’s managing director and set designer Brian Seaman says, “We are a small theater company with big dreams.” With their production of AVENUE Q, this small company has created a much needed summer theater experience that’s energetic, heartfelt, and refreshingly silly. For someone like me who has never really been into puppets, it was a wonderful surprise, and a great choice to liven up a hot summer night. July 10-27, 2013. mazeppaproductions.org.