Before there was Broadway hit "The Book of Mormon" and the popular Disney film "Frozen," composer-lyricist Robert Lopez collaborated on an odd hybrid of a show in a theater workshop that used both puppets and actors.
The show, "Avenue Q," ended up being the surprise Tony winner for best musical in 2004, beating out such competition as "Wicked."
The musical tackles some tough issues, like income inequality, implicit racism and being gay in a straight world. Make no mistake about the puppets, said director Brett Cottone. This isn't a show for children, but one about "real life, only more fun."
The puppets give the show its heart and charm, Cottone said. "The puppets are very important. They help you lose yourself. They're tricky. You find yourself relating to these pieces of cloth and fur and feeling for them in ways I don't think you would in these same situations with just actors." he added.
The show is about growing up and finding one's true self, Cottone said. Its writers were inspired by "Sesame Street," and some of them worked on that legendary PBS children's show. Audience members might recognize shades of Sesame Street's Cookie Monster, Bert and Ernie in the "Avenue Q "puppets, Cottone said .
Aaron Weissing plays Princeton, one of the "human" puppets in the show.
"When people hear puppet show, they think we're standing behind a wall and holding puppets up, but we're very much on stage, manipulating the puppets. When I look in one direction, the puppet looks in same direction. When I interact with someone, the puppet interacts with that person," Weissing said.
Cottone said the message of the show echoes a key theme of Sesame Street: how can everyone get along.
"Strangely, it's the same message Sesame Street would teach kids, but for adults," Cottone said.
"It's definitely about following real people," Weissing added. "The slogan we have is, it's real life, but more fun.
Weissing said the show doesn't try to shy away from difficult subjects. "A lot of the topics are very pertinent, especially seeing what's going on in the election right now.
He cited a number called "Everyone's a Little Bit Racist" that takes a variety of racial and ethnic groups to task.
"It really makes everybody uncomfortable really fast, but after a while you stop caring and just enjoy the message. It's a blast," Weissing said.
Cottone described the show as "an equal opportunity offender" but said, "It's all in good fun. I don't think the show has a mean-spirited bone in its body. It's really just there to make you smile."
The cast includes a diverse group of actors, reflecting the multi-cultural, multi-ethnic neighborhood that's the fictional Avenue Q. In fact, the main character Princeton makes his way to Avenue Q, the only place he can afford after moving through the alphabet of streets, starting with Avenue A.
"It's people living in a rundown, much poorer version of Sesame Street." Cottone said.
"Avenue Q" is on stage at the Community Players November 4-6, 11-13 and 18-20.