Lexington County has seen a boom in residential and commercial development, population and political clout in recent years. The question, however, remains: Are they ready for naughty puppets? Village Square Theatre aims to find out with its upcoming production of Avenue Q.
A bawdy and irreverent spoof of Jim Henson-style Muppet creations — in particular, the classic children’s program Sesame Street — Avenue Q copies the framework of depicting a few human actors who interact with little puppets made of cloth and felt, which are voiced and manipulated by additional human performers. The principal difference is that the marionette-welding artists aren’t hidden behind a counter or windowsill, but rather are clad inconspicuously in dark attire, lurking semi-inconspicuously in the shadows as their hands and vocal skills bring their characters to life.
The original Broadway production won Tony Awards in 2004 for Best Musical, Jeff Whitty’s book, and the score by Robert Lopez and Jeff Marx, and ran for more than six years and 2,500 performances. Marx had interned with Sesame Street, and a number of the original cast had been employed with the long-running educational series. While parody in the vein of MAD Magazine is allowable under copyright law, promotional material for the show is clear to stress that there is no affiliation with or endorsement by the extended Henson empire.
Village Square — formally the Lexington County Arts Association — has employed a traditional community theater model for decades, performing in a renovated movie theatre next to a shopping center near downtown Lexington. Seasonal choices usually include contemporary, family-friendly musicals (Shrek the Musical, Hairspray, Sister Act), classics from years past (Guys and Dolls, Harvey, The Miracle Worker), and junior shows, i.e. productions aimed at and featuring children (recent such productions include The Little Mermaid, Aladdin, Beauty and the Beast).
But following Debra Leopard’s appointment in 2016 as artistic director, Village Square began to diversify, offering a non-season Fringe production in the summer.
“The board is supportive of offering more mature options for our patrons,” Leopard says.
The goal, according to Jeff Sigley, who directs Avenue Q, is simple: “To offer a wider range of plays that may include more adult topics, language, situations ... not normally offered with the season shows.”
Previous Fringe offerings have included a double feature of Lone Star and Laundry and Bourbon, and Second Samuel (by Georgia-based playwright Pamela Parker, who attended opening night at Village Square).
Avenue Q, the first musical Fringe selection had “just been on our radar,” observes Board President Tony Roof. ”We wanted to do this hilarious comedy for the past few years.”
The actual puppets for the production are being rented from the play’s licensing company.
“They first provided rehearsal puppets,” Sigley explains, “and then three weeks before opening [sent] the performance puppets with costume changes.”
He caught another lucky break, too.
“It so happens that one of our cast members had previously done the show in Conway, South Carolina, and that theater had commissioned someone from New York City to come teach their actors [in puppetry],” Sigley says. “This cast member shared the knowledge gained with our cast, and helped individuals bring their puppets to life.”
Producer Linda Lawton Brochin notes that several cast members “took [their] puppets and made them their own, made them a part of their lives, even traveled with them. These felt characters took on life almost as soon as the actors picked them up. They have been to restaurants, traveled all around South Carolina, played bingo, showed up at the Vista bar scene, and even went on a cruise.”
The puppets notwithstanding, Avenue Q’s plotline is a relatively straightforward, coming-of-age tale focusing on the misadventures of 20-somethings who are exploring conflicting opportunities and choices with their careers, interests, friendships and sexuality. A 2012 production at Trustus Theatre jokingly — but accurately — warned of “graphic puppet nudity and sex.”
One flyer for Village Square’s run suggests a blend of Sesame Street and South Park, and another features an image of a voluptuous female puppet with a plunging neckline —- the appropriately named Lucy the Slut — and the accompanying caption: “Yes boys, these ARE real!” Every effort is made to drive home that this play is R-rated, and therefore not appropriate for children, no matter how adorable some of the puppets may seem.
“We tend to think that as Lexington has grown over the years,” Sigley notes, “so has the pool of patrons that are open to more adult-oriented shows.”
What: Avenue Q
Where: Village Square Theatre, 105 Caughman Ave., Lexington
When: Aug. 16-25
Price: $21 ($19 seniors, students and military; $17 youth 12 and under)
More: 803-359-1436, villagesquaretheatre.com