The Hippo


Jun 2, 2020








Rod. Michael Winters photo.

See Avenue Q

Where: Seacoast Repertory Theatre, 125 Bow St., Portsmouth
When: Aug. 14 through Sept. 13, with showtimes Thursdays at 7:30 p.m., Fridays at 8 p.m., Saturdays at 2 and 8 p.m. and Sundays at 2 p.m.
Contact: 433-4472,
Charity: During the show’s “money” song, there will be a hat passed around. Money dropped in will go to the Crossroads House.

Puppet happy
Seacoast Rep original take of Avenue Q

By Kelly Sennott

 Brandon James and Ben Hart knew they wanted to sew the Seacoast Rep’s Avenue Q puppets themselves — it’d save money, plus the co-directors are also visual artists — but they didn’t realize how badly they wanted this till they were 50 puppets in. 

The original Broadway production called for 11. 
“Our plan was to make the Avenue Q puppets,” James said at a rehearsal last week. “But we just kept going.”
They got a little puppet crazy, to say the least; they pulled out their sewing needles and a collection of upcycled materials from yard sales, dumpsters and Craigslist. They had this vision of a bustling New York City neighborhood, with puppet passersby on the street, in the buildings and on the sidewalks, which is mostly imagined in the original version. 
“We wanted to bring the city to life. There will be silly puppets crossing the street, seated little men in the corner, playing chess. There will be cockroaches, pigeons — we were really inspired by opening scenes from The Muppets,” James said. “The cool thing about this production is that Ben and I are designing everything, as well as directing. We’re doing the costumes and the props, and we’re designing the sets. We’ve been at it since Christmas. We spent seven months and over 4,000 hours hand-making these 50 puppets for the show.”
Avenue Q, which goes up Aug. 14, is a New York City-based coming-of-age story that addresses (and also satirizes) the issues about entering adulthood. It won three Tony Awards in 2003, including Best Musical, and featured 11 puppets and three actors. Many original cast members were Sesame Street performers. What revolutionized this show, however, was the fact that producers did little to hide the actors onstage. They’re right there, moving their lips along with the characters.
It’s kind of a stray for the Rep, which this year has produced Guys & Dolls, Into the Woods and South Pacific. Despite its bright, fabric characters, Avenue Q is pretty raunchy, with songs like “The Internet is for Porn” and “Everyone’s a Little Bit Racist,” not to mention puppet sex. In fact, interim executive director Miles Burns can’t remember the last time the Rep produced a show that pushes the envelope, content-wise, this much. 
But different is kind of what the Rep’s going for; last winter, the company nearly went under, and members had to ask the community for financial support. Kathleen Cavalaro was named interim executive director, Burns interim artistic director. A few changes were made; the company began holding more regular auditions and took on a new downtown rehearsal space. A handful of shows sold out — also a stray from the norm in recent years. People like James and Hart, Rep alums who’ve moved on to New York, L.A. or Boston, have come back to help get the company back on its feet.
“The board called this a Seacoast Rep renaissance,” Burns said via phone. “And as corny as it sounds, it’s absolutely true. Everybody is just jazzed about being creative and telling stories.”
The musical hasn’t been seen much in the area, never mind New Hampshire; locally, UNH Durham produced it, and so did theater companies in Boston and Maine. 
It’s expensive to put on; most companies don’t have directors excited to sew 11 puppets, never mind 50, and renting them can cost thousands of dollars. You also need actors and directors who know how to work them, and what’s more, teach others how to work them, which is where Hart comes in. He spent two years on the international Broadway tour and has been able to pass on his expertise. 
Most lead puppets have a special feature, like blinking eyeballs, light-up bellies and smoking tubes.
“It’s amazing how much these moving mechanisms really broaden the emotional vocabulary of these guys. There’s this whole host more of emotions they can portray,” James said. 
As seen in the August 6, 2015 issue of the Hippo.

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