Throughout August, the Joe Jefferson Playhouse (JJP) boards will be packed with Broadway and New York stage veterans. There’s a catch: Those old hands need local hands to bring them to life.
That’s because the stars of JJP’s new production of “Avenue Q” are mostly puppets. Not the Punch and Judy type, more like Muppets but with visible human manipulators who are the actual actors.
“We rented them from the actual touring Broadway show,” actor Jason McKenzie said. “Our whole costume budget went to renting the puppets. We looked at pictures from the original production and they look exactly like these puppets. We don’t have a certificate but we know they came from New York and they have been used in touring versions.”
Rehearsals began June 8, using puppets on hand. The performance models arrived long after those began.
The addition of the musical comedy to the JJP season has been a while in coming. According to McKenzie, a JJP board member who oversees marketing, their play-reading committee circled the play a while back.
“That show has been suggested and turned down several times in the past few years. This year they finally said, ‘You know what? I think it’s time.’ We’re kind of billing this new season as a season of comedy,” McKenzie said.
The hit Broadway production of 2003 won three Tony Awards, including best musical, and spawned versions in Las Vegas and London. So what could be the big hang-up?
It’s conceived as an adult version of “Sesame Street” set in a diverse urban neighborhood inside one of New York City’s “outer-outer boroughs.” The characters grapple with adult issues of love and sexuality, employment and bigotry through song and humor. There’s profanity, sexual situations and puppet nudity. It’s not a timeworn warhorse like many plays that have inured locals to community theater.
“The content of the show is modern. The style of the music is modern, too,” McKenzie said. “It’s just a funny, funny show. The director is doing a very good job of pushing us and making sure we’re doing our best.”
Director Eric Browne also brought out new skills in the players with puppeteer experience highlighted in auditions. The rest was honed.
“We actually had a puppet workshop where all the actors got in front of a mirror, like a giant one you see in a ballet studio,” McKenzie said. “We just talked, did some role plays, some improvisation with that stuff to get used to moving your hand with your mouth. I think it was easier for some than others but after having this long to practice, everybody seems to have done a really good job.”
McKenzie won’t be holding a puppet, however. Of the 14 characters and 15 actors — that complication clarifies when you see the production — listed on the JJP website, only three are fully flesh and blood.
“My character is Brian. He’s a starving comedian, older than most of the others, kind of settling down and looking at marriage,” McKenzie said. “He’s sort of a friend to everybody. He brings a level of maturity, sort of a grounding force for a lot of the characters.”
The show starts Aug. 7 and runs for three weekends. Tickets are $10-$20; curtain is at 8 p.m. on Friday and Saturday, 2 p.m. on Sunday.
The show is another component of the state’s oldest community troupe dealing with generational turnover. For instance, McKenzie’s first play at JJP was in 2001’s version of “The Rocky Horror Picture Show.” While that work was considered near-scandalous when it emerged in the 1970s, these days it’s a practically passé mainstream classic. To push modern envelopes and remain vital, new works must make the rotation.
Other updates for contemporary tastes besides play selection are in store. McKenzie mentioned more minimalist sets in conjunction with creative lighting and an updated website are in the works as well.
There are two new JJP participants in the cast. What else will be new to JJP audiences?
“Puppet boobies,” McKenzie quipped. “I’m pretty sure that’s never been on stage at JJP.”
The actor is eager to gauge reaction. He said recent rehearsals have generated laughter from attendees, but in different spots each time. The dynamic shifts with each performance, yet the overall appeal is evident.
“There are things within the show some people might not relate to or even like but at the end of the day there is a lot of heart in it,” McKenzie said. “I think anyone that comes can relate to someone on Avenue Q. Everybody’s kind of ‘been there’ and that’s what gives it a universal essence.”