A Few Good Puppets

Avenue Q and Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat play in Kingston

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The quest to find your purpose in life and to achieve your true potential is a noble one, traditionally guided by philosophy, spirituality and the occasional self-help book. But when was the last time you heard a puppet’s take on the subject? It’s probably been awhile. It might actually surprise you to learn just how insightful puppets can be.

Lucky for you, the Courthouse Center for the Arts presents the Rhode Island premiere of Avenue Q this month – a Broadway smash with a part-puppet cast, hilarious score and heartfelt message. Then, as if to further inspire and encourage you, the company follows it up with a production of Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat – an Old Testament story with timeless appeal. So dream big, and get ready for your best March yet.

The two shows kick off Courthouse’s new “Broadway in the Courtroom” series. Richard Ericson, the organization’s new artistic and executive director, heads the charge. Ericson and his partners in FourQuest Entertainment ran Theatre by the Sea for over a decade, in which time he fell in love with Rhode Island and settled in Hopkinton. Ericson has produced shows on and off Broadway, as well as internationally, but his position at Courthouse marks his first time managing a nonprofit. After the abrupt departure of the previous director (and much of his staff), Ericson reports with good humor that, “trying to rebuild the place has been both complicated and interesting.”

For anyone unfamiliar with Avenue Q, Ericson warns, “Hold onto your seats!” It’s a show for mature audiences that he describes as the lovechild of Sesame Street and South Park. In the story, a college grad moves to a shabby New York neighborhood and there gains perspective on adulthood. That college grad just happens to be a puppet. Some of his neighbors are also puppets, others human, but all are searching for meaning in their lives. Along the way, they sing “It Sucks to Be Me,” “Everyone’s a Little Bit Racist” and “What Do You Do with a B.A. in English?” With a smart script by Jeff Whitty and clever music by Jeff Marx and Robert Lopez, Avenue Q takes an upbeat, original and bawdy look at the challenges of being a grown-up.

Ericson directs the show with help from his choreographer Jon Paul Rainville and musical director Lila Kane. He explains that working with puppets is about as challenging as it is fun. Local puppet master Nora Eschenheimer designed and crafted the ones for the Courthouse, and the cast received instruction in performing with them from James Darrah of the New York production. “It’s amazing how human they are when they’re being operated well,” Ericson notes, adding that there are specific techniques for bringing them to life. He was surprised to learn, for example, that “a puppet dies when you close its mouth.” Ericson also suggests that a certain no-holds-barred puppet sex scene will be “furocious.”

For kid-friendlier fare, check out Dan Butterworth’s whimsical marionettes and shadow puppets in the Courthouse’s downstairs gallery (through March 4). And be sure to bring the kiddos back later this month for Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat. All ages are bound to enjoy the show’s catchy music by Andrew Lloyd Webber, funny lyrics by Tim Rice, and playful spin on a Biblical tale. When the title character’s uncanny ability to interpret dreams and make prophecies anger his brothers, they spitefully sell him as a slave. But Joseph embraces his gift and rises to a position of prominence in Egypt, impressing an Elvis-like pharaoh and saving the land from ruin. His adventures – not to mention his colorful coat – are magical.

Both shows feature live orchestras and talented local casts in an intimate and historic theatrical venue. So make it your March mission to get down to the Courthouse. Hopefully, you’ll leave with a spring in your step, a renewed sense of purpose and more than a few great stories to tell. Especially where puppets are concerned.

Avenue Q runs February 16-March 4. Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat plays March 22-April 15.