NENA’s Naughty, Bawdy Puppet Party

Cast members from the “rehearsal” troupe await their “Q” in the private dressing area, as NENAproductions prepares to stage the puppet-powered musical satire AVENUE Q, for the first time in NJ. (photos by Arnold Teixeira)

It was just a couple of seasons back that producer-director Nick Montesano scored a coup on behalf of his NENAproductions Theater Project, when the nonprofessional stage troupe became the first such company in New Jersey to snag the sought-after rights to RENT, the Tony winning game-changer that’s arguably become this generation’s “must” show.

With original Broadway cast member Fredi Walker-Browne even making an appearance, it was a genuine feather in the cap of the resident theatrical company at Ocean Grove’s Jersey Shore Arts Center — that old-school (literally; it’s an old school) venue whose auditorium has hosted such NENA specialties as Stephen Sondheim’s rarely revived Merrily We Roll Along.

For the first production of the company’s milestone 10th anniversary season, Montesano has once again become the first on the block to cherrypick a winner — this one a Tony Triple Crown’er (Best Musical, Best Score, Best Book) that’s been hailed as one of the funniest, most inventive shows of the era — and which continues to pack ’em in Off Broadway long after ending its acclaimed Broadway run.

So why, in the impresario’s words, has pretty much everyone else in the region “shied away” from doing their own production of Avenue Q, a show that’s been described as “part flesh, part felt, and packed with heart?”

Maybe it has something to do with the book by Jeff Whitty — a cheerfully R-rated satire that manages to touch upon everything from racism, self-loathing and homelessness to internet porn, homosexual denial and high-decibel sex. Or, it could be the score by Robert Lopez and Jeff Marx, highlighted by “It Sucks to Be Me,”  “I’m Not Wearing Underwear Today” and “The Internet is for Porn.”  Or maybe it’s just the fact that eleven of the show’s fourteen characters are portrayed as puppets. Muppet-y, puppety, funny, funky, foul-mouthed puppets.

There’s Princeton, the primary protagonist; a college grad whose search for meaning and purpose — and his ongoing financial doldrums — lead him to squalid, ungentrified Avenue Q, an alternate-universe, “outer outer boroughs” Sesame Street, and not coincidentally the only NYC neighborhood he can afford to live in.

Then there are the neighbors in the neighborhood — a collection of multi-hued “humans” and furry monsters that include affable Nicky and his resolutely Republican, closeted gay roommate Rod (think Ernie and Bert, natch); Trekkie Monster, who consumes online porn as others gobble cookies; plus sweet-natured Kate Monster, slutty Lucy and the ever-misguided Bad Idea Bears. Cast members Sean Openshaw, Bill Rogers, Chris Tomaino, Joseph York, Jessica Berger, Arnold Teixeira and Amanda Munice manipulate and give voice to the colorful characters, under the guidance of Montesano and musical director Jeff Brown.

The wild world of Avenue Q also features a few denizens who are presented as human actors rather than puppets — unemployed comic Brian (Jay Casale), his fiancee the failed therapist Christmas Eve (Jessica Murray) and a building super who just happens to be former child star (and former living person) Gary Coleman (Saman Boyd).

Created by Pennsylvania-based Character Translations and inspired by Rick Lyon‘s designs for the original production, the Avenue Q puppets are like a whole cast of nerf-nosed divas; arriving by special delivery packed in custom steamer trunks; accompanied by precise rules for storage (they’ve got their own private dressing room in the spacious basement of the JSAC building) and handling (white cotton gloves must be worn at all times). They even travel with their own understudies — a full set of “rehearsal puppets” to be used as stand-ins for the fancier, better accessorized “performance puppets.”

UpperWETside was pleased and privileged to have a tour behind the scenes at Avenue Q — including a look at Montesano’s typically awesome, quirkily detailed two-story set — an irreverent and hilarious show that’s being rated “WTF” for a Swear Jar full of naughty language, simulated foam-rubber fucking and full-on, howdy-doody puppet nudity. Here’s what Montesano and Teixeira had to say…

upperWETside: Everything looks amazing…the set, the puppets, the whole theater. I know you’ve been working on this show for months now, and this is gonna be something the local audience has never seen before…

NICK MONTESANO: The really amazing thing is that there’s not another community theater company in the area who’s willing to take on this show — people are shying away from it, or at least holding back and seeing how it plays out for us. And even at that, the people who administer the rights said that we could rent the puppets for our production — but they couldn’t guarantee we’d get them.

Really?! Is there only one official set of puppets available?

MONTESANO: No, there are FIVE actually — and when you rent them, you’re expected to use the rehearsal puppets for the day-to-day process of getting the show together. Then when we do an actual performance, the star puppets come out of their special boxes, with their nice costumes.

Fortunately, as you can see, we were able to get the puppets, and of course they’re great. They’re shipped out of Pennsylvania with very strict rules on how to handle them — you have to use gloves, and they have to be white, because of concerns over sweat and running dye. They’re like special guest stars, with their own dressing room and handlers.

I guess we could have tried making our own if we absolutely had to — I took a course in puppet making a while back — but having these ones makes a big difference; it places our production on a whole other level. It also means shorter rehearsal sessions.

Why, because the puppets have union rules or child labor laws?

MONTESANO: No, because the puppets really wear the actors out! We’ve got one girl in the cast who took a puppeting class specifically for this show, but for just about everyone it’s a whole new experience, and not an easy one. You’re standing there not as an actor playing a person, but performing and manipulating this exaggerated character with an affected, cartoon sort of voice.  In some cases you’re looking to emulate Cookie Monster, or Bert and Ernie, so you have to make sure that comes across. You also want to get everyone in the audience looking not at you but at the puppet.

ARNOLD TEIXEIRA: Your hands are constantly in motion when you’re working the puppet mouth and arms— it’s almost like a repetitive stress sort of situation, if you’re not used to it.

Musically this show is very hard to do also — the vocal harmonies are tight and complex; the background vocals are pretty difficult. You sort of think that the songs would be simple, almost based on children’s songs, but that’s not the case at all.

MONTESANO: It’s definitely a singer’s show. Some of our best singers are working on it.

I think you’ve really outdone yourself with this set also…is the fact that you’re your own set designer as much a matter of WANTING to do it, as much as NEEDING to?

MONTESANO: There are only four of us in the board here, so we do tend to take leaps of faith when presented with a challenge. If the show needs something, we learn how to do it.

The set is pretty much the design from the New York show; we’re not really doing anything radically different with it, but we did put a lot of hard work into it. Everything opens up or pulls out; it’s all workable doors and windows — I’m thinking Laugh-In — and since we don’t have any real “backstage” space here, we have to use the areas behind the doors and windows to store the puppets when they’re not on.

TEIXEIRA: It’s built to puppet, and not people, scale — when I’m up in one of the second-story windows I’m actually sitting on the floor, so that the puppet I’m holding is framed properly in the window.

MONTESANO: Donna, our lighting director, keeps telling us ‘you’re crazy’ for wanting to do the things we’re looking to accomplish, but we’ve never shied away from a challenge — we went up to New York to see the Off Broadway version of the show again, and all through the show, we were telling each other ‘we can do that; we can make it work.’

TEIXEIRA: We were thrilled to see the show again. It was just as exciting as the first time we saw it.

MONTESANO: It’s such a smart, clever, dirty show…it’s just bawdy and naughty as hell. It couldn’t be any more different from Man of La Mancha, which is the show we’re doing after this one, and which has been done regularly for many years, although I like to think that we’ve got a good understanding of it that a lot of companies don’t get.

I also like to think that a lot of people will be paying attention to what we’re doing here with Avenue Q — and that you’ll be seeing a lot more productions of this show in years to come.

Opening Friday, October 21 at the Jersey Shore Arts Center, Avenue Q continues with 8pm performances Fridays and Saturdays through October 29 (plus a final Sunday matinee on October 30). Tickets are $20 and can be purchased right here or by calling 732.988.1007.

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