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Yes, Palm Canyon Theatre’s production of Avenue Q is a musical with puppets—but this is definitely not a show geared toward children. Instead, it’s a show with substance (and, it should be noted, decidedly adult themes).

The show, conceived by Robert Lopez and Jeff Marx (who also wrote the music and lyrics), with a book by Jeff Whitty, was originally meant to be a television series. In 2002, it was developed as a stage production at the Eugene O’Neill Theater Center for the National Musical Theatre Conference. It hit Broadway in 2003—and went on to win three Tony Awards, including Best Musical.

Avenue Q addresses the issues we all face while becoming adults. Its characters (some of whom are puppets animated and voiced by unconcealed actors onstage) hit bumps in the road as they try to make their way in the world. The show opens as recent college graduate Princeton (Nicholas Sloan) is looking for his purpose in life. He has just moved to Avenue Q, a fictional street in New York, where he meets his neighbors: kindergarten teaching assistant Kate Monster (the fabulous Sarah Noe); uptight banker Rod (Hanz Enyeart) and his roommate, Nicky (Kelly Peak, who also directs); and Brian, an aspiring comedian (the always-dependable Cliff Plummer) and his Japanese fiancée, Christmas Eve (Carissa Dizon), a therapist with no clients. Rounding out the cast are Nicole Tillman as Gary Coleman (yes, that Gary Coleman), the building superintendent; and Stephen Blackwell and Jennifer Stowe as the Bad Idea Bears.

Debate begins over who has things the toughest with the song “It Sucks to Be Me.” Tough subjects including racism, porn, angst over one’s sexual orientation, homelessness and infidelity are all touched on in the musical numbers, with understanding and great humor. The biggest laughs come during “You Can Be as Loud as the Hell You Want (When You’re Makin’ Love),” as Kate Monster and Princeton have raunchy puppet sex.

Trials and tribulations ensue, but eventually, most of the characters make progress in their life’s journeys. In the closing number, “For Now,” the cast reminds that it’s OK that some people never find their life’s purpose—since everything is only temporary, anyway.

The Palm Canyon’s production is well-paced; J.W. Layne’s set is spot-on; and the lighting and sound are great (other than a common Palm Canyon Theatre problem: body-mic feedback when the actors/puppets have physical contact).

The cast is strong overall, but special kudos go to Noe, double-cast as Kate Monster and Lucy the Slut, who closes Act 1 with Kate singing the superb “There’s a Fine, Fine Line”; and Dizon, who shines in the duet “The More Yu Ruv Someone.”

But the highlight of Avenue Q is the masterful puppeteering. The cast manages to make the audience forget about the humans behind the foam-rubber heads with the painted-on faces; in the end, the audience sees only each puppet’s individual character—which is no small feat.

Yes, this puppet play requires more suspension of disbelief than usual—but Palm Canyon’s production succeeds beautifully.

Avenue Q, presented by Palm Canyon Theatre, is performed at 7 p.m. Thursday; 8 p.m., Friday and Saturday; and 2 p.m., Sunday, through Sunday, Nov. 17. The theater is located at 538 N. Palm Canyon Drive, in Palm Springs. Tickets are $32. The show runs about two hours, with one 15-minute intermission. For tickets or more information, call 760-323-5123 or visit www.palmcanyontheatre.com.

Published in Theater and Dance

Pippin. The very name suggests fun, music and lightness.

But there’s also a dark side to this season-closer musical at the Palm Canyon Theatre. It’s a show of contrasts.

It’s primarily a dance show. The bevy of “players” writhe, flip, shimmy, roll, strut, gyrate, leap, frolic, prance, hop, mince, stride, march, saunter, flit, spin, gallop, toddle, shuffle, glide, prowl and skim over every inch of the stage. The choreographer, Anthony Nannini, has adapted the dancing from the work of the immortal Bob Fosse. The dancers represent every possible body shape and type, but from the opening number—with the disembodied white-gloved hands illuminated by black light—it’s Fosse all the way. Sexy and suggestive moves combine with Peter Mins’ glitzy, dazzling costumes to maximize the effect.

As far as the plot goes, I’m reminded of TV and movie thugs who say, “Fuhgeddaboudit!” I’m particularly reminded of a scene—I think it was in The Sopranos—in which some semi-literate oaf offers his analysis of a script: “Maybe it’s got a weak plot.” Or, as my father used to say about opera, “If you worry about the plot, you’ll go crazy.” One problem is the betrayal of the Pippin audience’s belief when someone who is killed is then brought back to life, because it isn’t convenient to have him gone. Humph!

The story is the search for life’s meaning, by a barefoot young prince, Pippin—our choreographer, Anthony Nannini. He happens to be the heir to the throne of the great King Charlemagne, colorfully portrayed by the delightful Peter Mins. Predictably, this is complicated by a scheming second wife (Elissa Landi, with her famous legs and attitude, although she was clearly out of her depth with her vocal solo), who wants the throne to go to her son Lewis, played by the perfectly cast Daryl J. Roth, with his amazing sculpted body, chiseled face and chin for which Dick Tracy would kill. A charming turn is taken by the seasoned Rosanne Hopkins, with her admirably crisp diction, as the grandmother.

The first act is largely dominated by the mob of dancers, while Act 2 belongs to Nannini. Here, he seizes the opportunity to cut loose and show us what he can do (and do not take your eyes off the ropes). It wasn’t difficult to find out why his cast notes bid farewell to the Palm Canyon Theatre, where he has been nurtured for several years: He’s bound for New York and the big time. Watch him in this show, and you’ll see why. He’s a quadruple threat: actor, singer, dancer and choreographer. And he’s terrific at all of it. He was born to play lead roles like this. In fact, when he went off-script and improvised some dialogue to explain one of those opening-night ooops! accidents, the audience rewarded him with an appreciative ovation.

The second act also introduces his love interest, the widow Catherine, played by pretty Sarah Noe, and her son, Theo, a very young and sweet Stephen Lee. Throughout the show, Hiram Johnson, the “Leading Player,” acts as a host/narrator/Greek chorus, and I can’t tell you what a pleasure it is to simply watch him move. His grace, economy of gesture and body awareness seem natural and effortless. That said, it was unfortunate that his mushy verbalizations made him difficult for the audience to understand. It wouldn’t matter so much, except that his interpretation of the events was important to explaining the action. His singing voice was true, however.

Director Don Lillie, who hails from Missouri (“where the Pony Express began and Jesse James ended,” he told me), certainly had his hands full with this cast of 19. Interestingly, his first-ever theater teacher was the venerable William Layne, founder of the theater and patriarch of the family that runs it. The cast wrestles pieces of the J.W. Layne set around the stage to change scenes and locations, in full view of the audience—always fascinating to see. The Mado Nunez hair and wigs worked well, but the makeup of some actors featured a huge distracting blotch on the right side of some faces. (A heart? A star? WTF?)

Once again, the “old pros”—Mins, Hopkins, Landi—made Lillie’s production, along with the youthful Nannini, and Roth, who seemed to be flawless. Of course, the show benefits greatly from the contributions of designer Nick Edwards, musical director Charlie Creasy, the book by Roger O. Hirson, and the music/lyrics of Stephen Schwartz—and if that name sounds familiar it’s because he composed Wicked and Godspell.

So, it’s a production of contrasts. And don’t worry about the plot.

Pippin is performed at the Palm Canyon Theatre, 538 N. Palm Canyon Drive, Palm Springs, at 7 p.m., Thursday, July 18; 8 p.m., Friday and Saturday, July 19 and 20; and 2 p.m., Sunday, July 21. Tickets are $25. For tickets or more information, call 760-323-5123, or visit www.palmcanyontheatre.org.

Published in Theater and Dance