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On a street named "Avenue Q," USM students explore the challenges of puppetry

Cast members from

Sarah Flagg discovered she had one more chore to finish after she'd memorized her spoken lines, her song lyrics, her stage movement and her dance choreography.

The "Avenue Q" actress had to look her castmates -- the flesh and the felt -- in the eye.

Cast members from "Avenue Q""It's weird for a while, but the biggest thing you have to get used to is making eye contact with the puppet," said Flagg, a senior musical theater major at the University of Southern Maine.

Producing the popular Tony Award-winning musical comedy, which ran for more than 2,500 shows on Broadway, meant for lots of adjustments and new skills.

The musical is a story about young adults dealing with such issues as fidelity, friendship and romantic relationships. It's told with broad humor and songs. And of the 14 parts, only three are humans.

The other 11 are puppets: from the loud and overbearing Trekkie Monster to the sometimes shy Kate Monster and her new boyfriend, Princeton.

Cast members from "Avenue Q"

"Princeton's going through all these life trials that are pretty common," said Taylor Gervais, a senior musical theater major who loaned Princeton his voice and his right arm for innumerable rehearsals and four full shows.

"He's great. He's very fun," Gervais said. "He's (also) heavy."

In rehearsals, Gervais used a light, practice version of Princeton as he learned the role and its demands, which include being visible whenever Princeton was on stage. About a week before the show, he was issued the stage-ready version with wide eyes, thick black hair and the complexion of a yellow tennis ball.

Cast members from "Avenue Q"

The production included a puppet builder, puppet costume designers (all courtesy of Lyric Music Theater in South Portland) and someone for puppet wig maintenance.

All of it served the musical and the ability of the audience to empathize with the puppets.
For Flagg, that took forgetting that the puppeteer was there and treating the puppet like the performer.

"It's kind of cool to interact with them in a different way than most of the cast," she said. After all, most of her castmates had to express themselves through the puppets alone.

Their work began earlier than normal.

Student Rachel Grindle with Kate Monster

"As soon as the show was announced, many of us were familiar with the show knew what we had to do, and we had a few months to prepare," Gervais said.

In rehearsals, they worked to express themselves through their puppets and to help their puppets build rapport with other puppets. It's not as foreign as it sounds, he said.

"You're still making a real human connection," Gervais said.

The production was put on by USM's School of Music and directed by Ed Reichert, a USM lecturer in musical theater.

Student Taylor Gervais with PrincetonIn addition to Taylor Gervais as Princeton and Sarah Flagg as Christmas Eve, the 19-member cast included Rachel Grindle as Kate Monster, Samuel Allen as Nicky, Sean Arsenault as Rod, Drew Masse as Brian, Ali Sarnacchiaro as Gary Coleman, Matty Boyd as Trekkie Monster, Sara O'Connell as Lucy, Meg Ward as Bad Idea Bear #1, Andrew Carney as Bad Idea Bear #2, Lauren Tudor as Mrs. Thistletwat. Performing in the Ensemble and various other roles are Lauren Tudor, Ricky Brewster, Shelby Caraway, Jacklyn Condon, Chris Figaratto, Megan Mayfield, Tori Osman and Benjamin Walker Dubay.

The show concluded on Oct. 30 at Corthell Hall on USM's Gorham Campus.