Youngstown Playhouse Puppets propel "Avenue Q"

Thursday, February 14, 2013



Lester Malizia recalls the early days of “Avenue Q,” the irreverent Broadway musical-comedy that parallels “Sesame Street” right down to the puppets.

He had friends who were in the original production in New York and watched the show blossom.

He also saw the effect it had on first-time viewers. At first they may be unsure of it because of its R-rated riffage on a children’s staple, but eventually they are won over by its humor and humanity.

“There was a guy next to me [at a performance] from Iowa who booked theater tours,” recalled Malizia. “At first he thought, ‘I could never get people to see this,’ but then he saw that it has such an intense human heart that makes it wonderful. Through puppets it tells of love and loss and finding a place in life, and on that level, it’s beautiful, and witty and passionate ... and it has great music.”

“Avenue Q” went on to win the Tony Award for Best Musical in 2003 and has spawned West End and Las Vegas productions, as well as two national tours.

It will be performed on a Mahoning Valley stage for the first time this weekend when a production at the Youngstown Playhouse opens.

Malizia, a New Castle, Pa., native and second-time resident, is the director.

The show is unique in that the characters are mostly puppets. While there are actors holding and operating the puppets on stage, they are meant to be invisible. To pull it off, the actors must move and behave the same as their puppets.

It adds a new layer to the job that took some getting used to.

“We had a puppet boot camp to teach [cast members] how to handle puppets,” said Malizia. “Each actor has to really bond with the puppet so his every move reflects in the puppet. It’s a different approach to acting. Your character is translated through your puppet. It’s a unique set of challenges.”

The cast of the Playhouse production consists of Aaron Kubicina, Brianne Kochunas, Travis Ascione, David Lynch, David Croach, Stacy Anderson, Claire Blackledge and Alexis Shellow.

Nicholas Samson is the music director and leads a small ensemble.

Malizia pointed out that “Avenue Q” does not satirize “Sesame Street.”

But like the children’s show, it offers life lessons through songs that teach.

While the characters are young adults coming to grips with the realities of life, “Avenue Q” uses the same childlike, sing-song style of the PBS series. It makes the humor land even harder.

Malizia is an adjunct theater instructor at Westminster College and a theater professional who has worked as a director in several states. He was the artistic director of Seaside Music Theater, a professional theater in Florida.

His most recent stint at the Youngstown Playhouse was directing “Drood” last season.