Community theaters face a unique dilemma. Their survival depends upon expanding their audience and getting younger people in the seats. But they are just as dependent upon a strong season ticket base, which tends to be made up of older theatergoers who may not be as receptive to material that pushes boundaries.
"Avenue Q," which opens Friday at Youngstown Playhouse, definitely pushes some boundaries.
The set and the Muppet-like puppets may remind folks of a different street, one called Sesame. But those who live on Avenue Q don't sing about cookies or their rubber duckie. They sing about sex, internet pornography, schadenfreude and how "Everyone's a Little Bit Racist."
Tribune Chronicle photos / Andy Gray
Princeton (Aaron Kubicina, right) kisses Kate (Brianne Kochunas) in a scene from “Avenue Q.”
"Avenue Q" definitely is intended for adults, but it also is critically acclaimed and a Broadway and Off-Broadway success. It won the Tony Award triple crown - Best Musical, Best Book and Best Score - in 2004, and it beat "Wicked" to do so.
Playhouse Managing Director Mary Ruth Lynn said there were a lot of reasons to do "Avenue Q" on the main stage this season.
"I knew or had a pretty good idea that it would be partially underwritten," she said. "I knew we had some pretty solid financially backing, which allowed us to move forward. Knowing it was an area premiere, I figured it would be a very good draw here, and we were looking to widen the demographic and bring in some younger people."
One of the programs Lynn implemented when she became managing director was Griffith-Adler Actor's Series in the Moyer Room, which stages newer plays that often feature adult themes and content. It was started as a way to produce shows that wouldn't fit in the Playhouse's main theater, but the series has had an unintended consequence.
"A lot of our season ticket holders are going to those productions and loving them," she said. "In many of those productions, the language is very strong and there is some very strong content ... That also helped us make the decision. People are watching these things in movies, watching them on TV. We're letting them know it's very adult content."
The Robert Lopez / Jeff Max / Jeff Whitty musical focuses on characters struggling with the issues of post-college adulthood and the songs address those challenges in the same way "Sesame Street" deals with issues of childhood.
Unlike "Sesame Street," the actors operating the puppets and providing their voices are visible on stage alongside their felt-and-fabric counterparts. That requires a different skill set than many musicals.
Director Lester Malizia said, "The actors have to bond completely with the puppet. Whatever the actor is doing, the puppet has to be doing. There can't be any discrepancy between the movement of the actor and the puppet."
Only one of the actors who auditioned had any previous experience working with puppets.
"I went into the project knowing I would be starting from the ground level and build it," Malizia said. "The fact that I saw one with puppet experience surprised me. I wanted to make sure the actors were appropriate for the show. The show is very age restricted. They should all be in their early 20s."
The cast features Stacy Anderson, Travis Ascione, Claire Blackledge, David Croach, Brianne Kochunas, Aaron Kubicina, David Lynch and Alexis Shellow.
The actors received their puppets early in the rehearsal process, and instead of renting puppets, the Playhouse had them made locally by Brian Palumbo.
"Renting puppets is pretty expensive, and we run a tight budget," Lynn said. "Brian already had constructed two, three puppets for something else, and he said he could make them for this much, which was considerably under the rental fee. They look great, and it was nice to keep that business in house in terms of the Youngstown area."
The puppets make "Avenue Q" distinctive, but it was successful because it possesses the same qualities as other great musicals.
"The situations are very touching," Malizia said. "It's very R-rated, but anyone who remembers getting out of college and what that experience is like, it should be very familiar to them. ... Underneath the satire is real honesty about what going on between these people and real emotion."