AJC features Piedmont Park puppet takeover!

May 29th, 2015

“Avenue Q” cast members Molly Coyne, Spencer Stephens, Matt Nitchie, Natalie Gray and Nick Arapoglou pose at the Promenade green space in Piedmont Park. (Phil Skinner)

“Avenue Q” cast members Molly Coyne, Spencer Stephens, Matt Nitchie, Natalie Gray and Nick Arapoglou pose at the Promenade green space in Piedmont Park. (Phil Skinner)

The actors who turned Horizon Theatre Company’s 2011 Atlanta premiere of “Avenue Q”, and its inevitable 2012 encore run, into box office gold seem surprisingly confident as they scan the wide-open Promenade at Piedmont Park.
This spacious parcel on the park’s north end is where the troupe’s third mounting of the Broadway hit opens June 3. The “Q” crew radiates a “We’ve got this” assurance despite the fact that the previous stagings were at Horizon’s home theater — a cozy, converted Little Five Points schoolhouse auditorium that’s roughly the size of a breadbox (capacity: 172).

By comparison, the Promenade green space might seem in a league with the Atlanta Falcons’ green space at the Georgia Dome. It’s so spacious that there’s some disagreement about just how many people the park can accommodate for a performance.

The Atlanta Symphony Orchestra, which will give three free concerts there June 11-25, says it can handle 2,500 picnickers on spread-out blankets and beach chairs. Officials of the now-defunct Georgia Shakespeare, which launched the performances-in-the-park tradition in 2004, say they topped out at roughly 1,600 just last summer.

So 1,600 is the goal that ambitious Horizon leaders have set for five evening performances of a “PG-13” version of the bawdy musical to be staged at the park through June 7.

Then, the company will take the show — in its full-on adult version — back indoors for a monthlong run at another old haunt of Georgia Shakespeare, Oglethorpe University’s Conant Performing Arts Center. Horizon is blocking off some seating with lesser sightlines there to bring down the capacity to 450, not quite triple what the six returning members of the eight-actor “Q” cast are used to back in their L5P den.

But, first, they must conquer Piedmont Park with the musical-with-puppets that the troupe accurately bills as “‘Sesame Street’ meets ‘The Simpsons.’”

The actors, visiting the Promenade for an early photo shoot on a recent muggy afternoon before the stage had been erected, spoke with some of the same fizzy positivity that the show’s tunes (music and lyrics by “Frozen” songwriter Robert Lopez and Jeff Marx) and dialogue (book by Jeff Whitty) deliver in spades.

“We’re just going to have to rethink doing the same things,” said Jill Hames, who plays the characters Lucy the Slut and Bear. “Still be honest and keep our technique the same … but project and make everything bigger. That could be our ‘Avenue Q 3.0’ T-shirt.”

Added Spencer Stephens, who portrays Gary Coleman — yes, that Gary Coleman — and serves as cast puppet coach: “Being slightly disconnected from the audience, not being able to go out and physically touch them, is going to be a bit of a challenge, because that was one of the cool aspects of the show: You’re within arm’s reach of these awesome puppets.

“But I don’t think it will take away from the fun,” he continued, “because the dialogue is funny and the music is catchy. We just have to make sure it reads all the way to the back of the audience.”

However the actors project, this version will “read” a bit differently than one for which Horizon scored seven Suzi Bass Awards (Atlanta’s Tonys) in 2011, including best musical.

Responding to requests from companies seeking to reach wider audiences with the show, its creators crafted a new adaptation that, according to Horizon’s website, “maintains the dramatic (and comedic) intention and integrity of the piece.” The strong language and sexual situations, however, have been left on the cutting room floor.

In the PG-13 version, two songs (“Loud As the Hell You Want” and “My Girlfriend Who Lives in Canada”) have been excised and a third (“The Internet Is for Porn”) has been replaced (with “Social Life Is Online”).

Horizon co-founder Lisa Adler said the musical’s essential thrust, about the very human struggle of young adults to build a purpose-driven and community-connected life, remains intact. The new take, though, is recommended for ages 13 and up and generally is more appropriate for the ultra diverse audience drawn to this most central of Atlanta parks for a night of theater under the stars.

The possibility of reaching a wider audience is why Horizon “Q”-ed up, so to speak, when the Atlanta-based Loridans Foundation, working with the Piedmont Park Conservancy, invited it and five other theaters (Actor’s Express, Aurora, 7 Stages, Atlanta Shakespeare Company and Theatrical Outfit) to submit proposals to replace Georgia Shakespeare.

Such a challenge fit snugly with Horizon’s mission and business strategy, revised in 2007.

“As an artistic director, I want to create a welcoming home for artists and audiences to come together to connect and be renewed and enlightened by contemporary plays with passion, humor, hope and heart,” said Adler, who launched one of Atlanta’s longest-running and most respected troupes with husband Jeff Adler in 1983. “And I’m also excited by taking the work we make that connects most deeply with audiences and finding ways for that to reach as large and diverse an audience as possible.”

Taking that challenge on with “Avenue Q” has demanded a serious investment of time, energy and — last, but hardly least — fundraising.

Loridans Foundation provided the lead grant of $100,000, then Atlanta’s Mark and Evelyn Trammell Foundation chipped in $25,000, leaving Horizon still seeking $85,000 for direct expenses (not counting rehearsal and staff costs). Lisa Adler hopes to raise $20,000 in reserved ticket sales (1,000 tickets are free for each show, the rest paid) and contributions at the park. In the days leading up to the June 3 bow, she is hoping to fund as much of the balance as possible with sponsorships.

She was asked if this is, um, realistic for a company that already is mounting five “mainstage” plays, plus family and holiday shows and its New South Play Festival this year, not to mention juggling an array of educational and community outreach programs.

“No, it’s not realistic!” she responded with cheery, what-me-worry candor. “However, opportunities present themselves and sometimes you choose to take them whether or not you are ready.

“The park and Conant opportunities were presented to us by a funder (Loridans) and by a partner (Oglethorpe), and we felt it was important to rise to the challenge rather than let the opportunity pass us by. Yes, there is risk involved, and yes, it is a huge stretch. We will learn a lot in this undertaking.”

Sentiments that would seem to fit “Avenue Q” to a “T.”

Horizon Theatre Company presents “Avenue Q”

“PG-13 Edition”: 7:30 p.m. June 3-7 at the Promenade at Piedmont Park. Grounds open at 6 p.m. for picnics. Free tickets (bring blankets or low beach chairs) and reserved tickets ($15 plus tax and fees). Most accessible parking: Atlanta Botanical Garden’s SAGE Parking Facility.

“Adult Version”: June 12-July 12 at Oglethorpe University’s Conant Performing Arts Center. 8 p.m. Wednesdays, Thursdays and Fridays, 3 and 8:30 p.m. Saturdays and 5 p.m. Sundays. Horizon also will present the PG-13 edition at Conant at 3 p.m. June 20, 5 p.m. June 28 and 8 p.m. July 8. Regular tickets start at $30 (plus tax). VIP tickets, including reserved preshow table, a drink and other perks, start at $45. (Prices change based on availability and demand.) Oglethorpe University, 4484 Peachtree Road N.E., Atlanta.