There are some familiar furry friends in the Mercury Theater these days. And on June 21st, the three-time Tony Award-winning musical AVENUE Q opens a return engagement of the hit production that played for seven months at the Mercury in 2014.
Returning cast members include Leah Morrow and Jackson Evans in the roles of Kate Monster and Princeton who live in a neighborhood inhabited by puppets and humans, all facing real life situations. The terrific Robert Lopez/Jeff Marx score with book by Jeff Whitty is an adult-themed musical journey about love, relationships, sex, respect for others and finding your purpose in life.
Apparently, you can get away with a lot of things when you have a puppet in your hand, or at least that’s what we found out when the conversation turned to an earlier promotional appearance on WGN when pretty much everything went off the rails. You will have to listen to our conversation to find out exactly what happened and all of the other charming moments we had with the talented duo whose friendship began when their puppet personas fell in love on Avenue Q. PODCAST
Back on Avenue Q… Jackson: “We can come back to it with four years of life experience, and yet, Princeton and Kate are in the exact same place. … Our amazing puppet coach, Rick Lyon, who was in the original cast, was telling us that literally Princeton and Kate have done nothing else. We as actors have done other shows. We have learned things. We have gone through breakups. Some of us have delivered children – a/k/a Leah - but Princeton and Kate literally have done nothing else. These adorable puppets just live only in this play. … it's been so great to come back … he’s been waiting for me and it's so delightful to be back and singing these songs. … Bobby Lopez, since then, has become an EGOT (recipient of the Emmy, Grammy, Oscar and Tony Awards) … Frozen, Book of Mormon (Leah: “Finding Nemo”) … and yet we still get to sing some of his best songs that he wrote so long ago, so tuneful and great and funny and important. Leah: “Our first day of rehearsal, when we were singing through and reading through the show, it struck me more emotionally than I expected it to because it was like coming back to a really dear friend. And when Jackson started singing “What Do You Do with a B.A. in English?” I welled up with tears because it was so wonderful to be back in that world, to hear my wonderful friend do this lovely thing and say these words. Sing these notes. It just felt like getting back into an old tee shirt … we were really a family and it was also an experience that a lot of us had never really had before. This was a commercial run at this theater in Chicago …and we were together for seven months with rehearsal and our run. … it just fills you with such lovely nostalgia and encouragement.”
Open to surprises when passing the hat … Jackson: “We did a performance the last time when someone snuck an engagement ring into the hat and we stopped the play. I said, “Oh my gosh, an engagement ring. Whose could this be?” And the lovely couple came on stage and got engaged in the middle of our play. It was really beautiful. It was hard to get back to the play after they left… it sounds so cliche that it's different every night, but it truly is because it's so specific that the audience informs our performance so much with what they put in the hat. Feel free to bring weird things. It's an insider tip for those of you listening to this podcast. We're open to surprises.” Leah: Somebody once put in their paycheck. And they were like, “I need that back!” Jackson: and a wallet. A full wallet. Leah: And I'm like, “Did you really think you were going to get it back? Jackson: They really trust those puppets. Puppets are really easy to trust.”
Like Cirque du Soleil for the Mind… Leah: “We had two different coaches. For our first production, we had a puppet coach named Kevin Noonchester who was a part of the Las Vegas production after the show left New York in its original Broadway run and went to Las Vegas and he was part of that production where he learned from Rick Lyon, one of the original cast members who created the original Broadway puppets and he came in and coached with us. Our puppets for this production were designed and made by Russ Walko who worked at the Jim Henson creative shop. … the style of puppetry is akin to what you would see on 'Sesame Street' or say 'The Muppet Show', a la Jim Henson… think of it as is like supertitles at the opera or subtitles in a foreign film that at first you're like, 'Okay, how do I plug this all in?' It's like Cirque du Soleil for the mind. Jackson: Put that on a poster. Leah: AVENUE Q: Cirque du Soleil for the Mind! … As the event goes on, I'm inferring all the things that I need to at this moment and this puppet doesn't have eyelids, but, I'm seeing everything they're communicating because they're in sync with the puppeteer and you begin to kind of develop this understanding of the physical language and it just kind of goes together in your mind. Cirque du Soleil!” … Jackson: “There are some amazing human characters who you get to see an interesting relationship that is between human and puppet and how much deference they give to the puppet as if the puppeteer was not there. And it's as if the puppeteer is really only there for the audience. … to pick up some emotional cues that can't quite be delivered through a face that can't frown.”
A Fine Fine Line … Leah: “…there's this moment in the lives of Kate and Princeton on Avenue Q where things are not easy. Things are uncomfortable. Things are crunchy, just like in life. And she is left realizing that her heart has maybe just been broken and she is trying to figure out how to pick up those pieces. Kate is not the unrequited love ingénue type. So when she has her romantic hopes dashed, she is crushed, but she resolves to let that moment be something that propels her forward. And she really is struggling … in this emotional place when Princeton asks her before they break up to be his date for a wedding and she says “I always go to weddings alone. I don't know what I’d do if I went … (Jackson: ‘with a boyfriend?’) and you realize she's never had this experience. And it's one of those moments where you're like, “Oh my gosh! Things are really starting to get good. I never thought they would get so good, but things are really starting to get good!” And then, in the next scene, it's taken away from her and instead of falling into a puddle, which she does, she's also vowing to fight her way out of it. It's a really beautiful and vulnerable moment.”
Remembering Matthew Gunnels … Leah: “One big change, our assistant director, Matthew Gunnels, passed away the week before we closed in 2014. For those of us who were here before, his legacy with the show is still with us. That is a change, certainly. In light of the current political and social climate, this show does talk about and speaks to those things. And so yes, those notes kind of come out a little differently now and that is a change. …Jackson: “We're not rewriting the musical because you don't need to in order to make it feel like it's now. When they first did it, they thought they were going to call it ‘Avenue Q: A Show for "20 Somethings" and they realized very quickly that it's for “all” somethings. The concepts were universal then and they're universal now but they are in a different lens. … Some of the things that used to be really funny because they felt outdated are now not as outdated as we had hoped. And so now it's just an interesting sort of different lens to see it through.”
Comments have been edited for clarity and length.
PHOTOS|Brett A. Beiner