Autumn was in the air as dusk fell on a late September day at the West Ridge Center in Highland Park. The smell of a newly made fire wafted from a nearby chimney—crisp and inviting, much like fall itself. A football team practiced under the glare of field lights; the dull blows of pads and grunts and a shrill whistle every now and then punctuating the still silence.
Inside the Center was much livelier. Middle-aged men in high socks and knee braces stalked the halls in the direction of the basketball court. High-spirited “hiyas” echoed from a karate class. And in a classroom with the door shut and the windows covered, cute, furry, Muppet-like puppets were singing about sex.
(As Big Bird would sing, with didactic emphasis: “One of these things is not like the others.”)
But this is no Sesame Street. Or rather it’s the X-rated, adult-only, salacious and hilarious and unapologetic in its political in-correctness, version: the Tony Award Winning musical, Avenue Q.
Who would have the guts to put on a show that the New Yorker called “Mayhem and Madness;” and the New York Times described as “unfailingly tuneful and disgustingly irresistible”?
The Highland Park Players, that’s who.
A majority of the cast and crew had arranged themselves around the classroom. Those that weren’t standing were sitting down on plastic chairs a couple sizes too small for adults. In the back, two actors had Trekkie Monster—Cookie Monster’s porn-addicted doppelgänger—propped up on a miniature blackboard easel that, come show time, would be a second-story window. (Trekkie requires two actors: one to work the arm movements, the other to work the head and mouth.)
Puppets and actors were walking through “The Money Song,” with a point of hammering home the minutia and nailing down the details. Director Catherine Davis was giving direction to her cast, who were also being directed by two puppet directors.
(Prior to this musical, none of the aforementioned actors had ever worked with puppets. Five straight days of puppet boot camp helped change that.)
As I watched, Executive Producer and President of the Highland Park Players, Brad Rose, leaned over and whispered, “Look at the puppets that aren’t talking.”
When we spoke prior to watching the rehearsal, this had been a point Rose had made a few times. Though we weren’t able to meet for breakfast—Rose quipped he would’ve ordered a lox omelet with side of French toast—the president of the Players spoke with me at length. Mainly, about the challenges a non-profit theatre company faces when putting on a Tony “Triple Crown” Winner for Best Musical, Best Score, and Best Book.
“Challenge accepted: let’s try and pull off a show that people stay away from because, quite frankly, it’s very difficult,” said Rose.
“Think about just two people in a scene, sans puppets—like right now, how about this interview: I’m talking right now but you still have life, you’re shaking your head, you’re engaged, you’re listening, you’re moving,” noted Rose. “Well if you’re a puppet, and you’re not talking, you just can’t hold the puppet there and be dead. You gotta have life; it’s gotta always be in the moment.”
Watching Trekkie move, one got an idea of what Rose was talking about. He chuckled. He raised the roof. He wagged his finger with emphasis. And, maybe most impressive of all, he danced.
The Players have spared no expense for this show. They’ve licensed the original logo. They’ve spent extra money to rent the original Broadway puppets (higher quality than even the ones they were using for rehearsal.) They have a screen built into the stage to show the original transitional videos between acts, (which will resonant with anyone who has seen Sesame Street).
“I think there’s only so many times you can go back to the well and do a Music Man, or an Oliver,” said Rose. “It’s been done.”
When other local theatre troupes have shuttered their doors, the Players have experienced a revival of sorts; and Rose has been an integral part of overseeing that redirection.
Rose got his start with the theatre company after auditioning for a pirate in their production of Peter Pan and landing the part. He would go on to play the lead in Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, which solidified his love for the troupe.
After the original board split on a decisive decision to cancel a struggling Fiddler on the Roof only five weeks out from opening night, Rose volunteered to fill the vacant role of president. Since then he has overseen bold choices and, on the surface at least, difficult productions—starting in 2002 with Big: The Musical, which featured a larger-than-life floor keyboard that they rented from a regional theater.
More recently, the Players’ Cats was met with critical acclaim—winning BroadwayWorld Chicago’s awards for Best Actress and Best Choreographer for non-equity.
Rose even met his wife, Hannah, through the Players. Hannah will be playing the character Christmas Eve—one of the human characters—in Avenue Q. (Rose assures me she still has to audition like everyone else; no spousal favoritism.)
The Players are looking forward to their first performance tonight. But maybe no one is more excited than Rose himself. “Every time I come to a rehearsal in this community center, I make sure the doors are shut. I’ve been a little nervous. I can’t wait to get to the theater before someone complains.”
Avenue Q will be performed at the Northbrook Theatre, 3323 Walters Avenue, from October 16th through October 25th. To purchase tickets, please go to highlandparkplayers.com or call the Northbrook Theatre at 847-291-2995.
The North Shore Weekend newspaper is published weekly.