Any resemblance between Avenue Q and the beloved children’s TV series Sesame Street is purely intentional.
Be forewarned, though, Avenue Q – the Tony-winning musical opening Wednesday at the Jaeb Theatre, inside Tampa’s Straz Center for the Performing Arts – is not suitable for kids.
Why go see it? “It’s funny, and it’s got puppets doing nasty things,” says director David M. Jenkins.
The artistic director at Jobsite, the Straz’s resident theater company, Jenkins is moonlighting for Avenue Q. Straz-produced shows are generally more mainstream than those done at Jobsite, which tend towards the envelope-pushing.
However, “Avenue Q, I would say, is on brand for Jobsite,” Jenkins points out. “Nunsense, maybe not, or Plaid Tidings or A Tuna Christmas. These aren’t really going to be the things that Jobsite’s going to do, aesthetic-wise and mission-wise.
“However, it doesn’t mean there’s not value in them, nor that there aren’t a lot of people who would like to see them. So I’m glad that the Straz Center is producing. Also, it gives artists in this market weeks of work, which is really important.”
Since it first appeared on Broadway in 2003, Avenue Q has remained an audience favorite.
Look past the gimmick, Jenkins says. “Some of the songs are so good, and so memorable, and not just because some of them are a little randy. It beat Wicked at the Tony Awards! It got the triple crown that year.”
And how ‘bout those song titles? “The Internet is For Porn,” “If You Were Gay,” “Everyone’s a Little Bit Racist,” “You Can Be as Loud as the Hell You Want (When You’re Makin’ Love).”
Adds Jenkins: “And there are some really beautiful moments between some of the humans and the puppets, and even between the puppets, that are dead-bang hitting those notes that the inspiration material gave to them – when you think about Sesame Street, and those really sweet moments sometimes. Or when a lesson would really land, gently.”
Casting Avenue Q is a delicate walk to walk. Although the people and the puppets are onstage at the same time, a director must hire performers who are comfortable with one hand shoved up inside another “character” for the duration.
Directing 2021’s Hand to God and Shockheaded Peter for Jobsite, as well as the Straz production of Little Shop of Horrors in April, gave Jenkins a pretty good idea of who, from the local talent pool, might just be able to bring Avenue Q’s felt-and-foam creatures to primary-color life.
“I’ve done so much weird stuff over the past year and a half that I’m able to spot these things in people,” he explains, “because there are a ton of people in this area who are really beautiful singers, and people who are great movers and all that, but operating a puppet is a totally different thing.”
There are seven actors in Avenue Q: Spencer Meyers, Julia Rifino, Ashley Lord, Ryan Sturm, Fo’i Meleah, John Perez and Chelsea Hooker. “I really am in love with this cast,” says Jenkins.
Three of them had been in other productions of Avenue Q, and several others had some sort of puppet experience.
Everyone took to their Avenue Q puppeteering tasks beautifully.
“After 18 months of working on shows with puppets in them,” says Jenkins, “every time I see a babe in arms out in public, I think ‘Oh neat! They brought their puppet.’ Out of the corner of my eye, I think babies are puppets.”
Avenue Q runs Aug. 31-Sept. 25. Find details and tickets here.