Musical Theatre Repertory finds ‘Purpose’ in ‘Avenue Q’ performance

(From left to right) Caitlin Oden, Colin McIsaac and Terry Mullany perform in the Musical Theatre Repertory’s production of “Avenue Q.” (Photo courtesy of Mallory Gabbard)

When asked what he was most excited for audience members to see in Musical Theatre Repertory’s production of “Avenue Q,” freshman Reese Dawkins, who plays Nicky, had a simple answer: “Puppet sex.”

The infamously bawdy musical opened at the Massman Theater Thursday, and is the first show in MTR’s 14th season of student-produced musicals.

“Avenue Q” won Best Musical at the Tony Awards in 2004, beating the phenomenally successful “Wicked.” Its script is a heartfelt and hilarious dive into the anxieties of adulthood -— through the lives of puppets.  

Princeton, the show’s protagonist, moves to Avenue Q — the grown-up version of “Sesame Street” — with only a bachelor’s degree in English on his belt. He meets Kate Monster, a kindergarten assistant teacher, Rod, a Republican banker and Nicky, Rod’s lazy roommate.

With the help of supporting characters such as Lucy the Slut and Gary Coleman, they brave the labyrinth of adulthood and yearn for the simplicity of college life.

Director Sean Soper, a senior majoring in business administration, said he originally wanted to direct “Avenue Q” because he could relate to Princeton’s emotional turbulence as a soon-to-be college graduate.

“I feel that struggle that Princeton is going through,” Soper said. “When we’re in college we feel like we can conquer the world.”

Most of the characters are played by actors who speak through a Jim Henson-style puppet. Three characters, including Coleman, are played by humans, but in true “Sesame Street” style, humans and puppets coexist harmoniously.   

Liz Buzbee, a senior majoring in theatre, plays Kate and said her biggest challenge has been operating the puppets in a manner that does justice to the story. The original Broadway cast featured a number of professional puppeteers, but MTR’s cast members learned to puppeteer as a group.

“[A production] in which you’re looking at the actor’s face more than the puppet’s face is a failed production,” Buzbee said. “You want to look at the puppet and then look at the actor for reference.”

With a score by Jeff Marx and “Frozen”’ composer Robert Lopez that features songs like “Schadenfreude,” “Everyone’s a Little Bit Racist” and “You Can Be as Loud as the Hell You Want When You’re Makin’ Love,” “Avenue Q” taps into the fundamental struggles of adulthood.

How can you know if the mixtape your neighbor gave you was a sign of romantic interest? And what is the internet really for? (The latter is answered matter-of-factly in the raunchy number “The Internet is for Porn.”)

“Underneath the shock value and gimmick, which is puppets cussing, there is such a beating heart about adulthood,” said Dawkins, a freshman majoring in cinema and media studies.

Dawkins said that “Avenue Q” acts as an antidote to negativity, especially in the current political climate.

He credited Soper for bringing forward the sincerity of “Avenue Q” as a director. Soper has been involved with MTR for two years, and Dawkins said he is excited for audience members to find out what “Avenue Q” is really about, especially since the show is widely known for its raunchiness.  

“I’m excited for people to cry so hard from laughing, and also cry a little bit from the emotion of it,” Soper said.

Soper and musical director Austin Karkowsky said the talented 10-student cast has made their jobs easier.

“We have so much fun together and they bring something new to the table every day, which I really appreciate,” said Karkowsky, a sophomore majoring in theatre.

Reservations are no longer available online, but students are encouraged to arrive early and join the waitlist.