John Ambrosino Talks ’Avenue Q’
"Avenue Q" surprised Broadway nine years ago when it scooped the Best Musical Tony Award from the then big new kid on the block: "Wicked." Yet the combination of Sesame Street-like style presentation (it mixes puppets and human actors pretty much equally) and a snarky satire suitable for cable television made the show an immediate hit. It ran on Broadway for some six years before moving off-Broadway, where it is currently (and quite successfully) continuing. Now the show is finding its way onto regional theater stages, such as Boston’s Lyric Stage Company, where it runs through June 19.
The show’s plot centers on Princeton, a recent college graduate that moves to New York and finds a home on Avenue Q, a less-than-desirable, but affordable neighborhood far from the hipper ones in Manhattan. With his English degree, Princeton is searching for some purpose to his life; not unlike his neighbors on Avenue Q, who are all struggling with issues facing young urbanites. (Not unlike the young Brooklynites seen on HBO’s "Girls.")
In the show John Ambrosino plays Princeton, but also the closeted gay character Rod, a puppet that he and his fellow actors manipulate. Good thing that he has puppetry experience, having toured with the kid-oriented show "Flat Stanley" and an early interest in different styles of performance using puppetry.
"I actually did a lot of puppet work early on in my career," Ambrosino told EDGE during a recent interview. "When I was working as a director I was specifically interested in Bunraku puppetry of Japan and Wayang Kulit, which is shadow puppetry from Indonesia. But this is a completely new experience for me--Bunraku puppetry [is quite different from the puppetry of "Avenue Q."] The mouth doesn’t move on the Bunraku puppet. And its manipulated by three puppeteers: One is the head and the left arm, and then one is the right arm, and one is the feet."
Puppetry as Expression
Is working the "Avenue Q" puppets a matter of just more work to do on stage, or does this offer a new means of expression? Or both?
"It’s incredibly difficult," Ambrosino reckoned. "It’s probably one of the most physically difficult things I’ve done in theater, ever. ’Flat Stanley’ was very physically difficult, with the weight of the puppet and how it was hooked onto my body, but this is ten times harder.
"[The mouths of] our puppets are run by our right arm, and the arms are run by our left arm, so you have to hold your right arm up at an almost 90 degree angle at shoulder height and manipulate the puppet and walk it around, so you can imagine the experience of holding the puppet up for an extended period of time--it’s really tough on your shoulder and on your back. We’ve been in rehearsal for a week, and all of us are just [worn out].
"Just in general, the physicality of holding that puppet up is difficult," Ambrosino continued, "and then on top of that making the puppet alive and able to speak with your own voice and move its head at the same time, it’s like rubbing your tummy and patting your head. The puppets’ mouth operates differently from your own mouth, so we make the puppet’s mouth move a little bit more to make the puppet look as though it’s speaking correctly. There’s kind of an extra movement there with certain words.
"But I’m loving it!" the actor declared. "The whole cast is. When you watch [the puppetry] being done, it’s just astonishing how mesmerizing and beautiful it is. You really do start to fall in love with the puppets, and the actor is there [on stage and visible], but you see the characters come through the puppets, and it’s amazing."
The Rigors of the Road
"Flat Stanley" was a touring production, and "Avenue Q" has had touring productions, but in this case the actor doesn’t have to face long hours on the road from city to city: This production is staying put at the Lyric Stage.
"It’s really exhausting to travel," Ambrosino noted, "and ’Flat Stanley’ was a particularly exhausting schedule because we would do a full weekend with six performances, and sometimes we would do a day and a night and travel the next day."
The grueling schedule took its toll.
"From a performer’s standpoint, everything we do is so much connected to how we are physically, how our health is," Ambrosino said. "A lot of people don’t realize that the travel takes a toll on your body and it’s tough to maintain your voice and your muscles and all that when you travel all the time, because you are constantly working.
"After I did ’Flat Stanley’ I did ’Jersey Boys’ for two years and I was in the Las Vegas company, which doesn’t tour, even though ’Jersey Boys’ does have a touring production," the actor recalled. "I remember getting ’Jersey Boys’ in Vegas and thinking, ’Oh, thank God, I don’t have to move!’ "
But now Ambrosino, a Boston area native, is back in his home town, where he ran Animus Ensemble for six years.
"Boston is a great market," the actor enthused. "All of the touring companies love to come to Boston because the audiences are so good. When my friends doing the ’Jersey Boys’ tour were here, they said to me, ’Wow, what is it with Boston? The audiences are so enthusiastic!’ I said, ’I don’t know; everybody who was on tour that I’ve spoken to said the exact same thing.’
"I don’t know if it’s because we’re a college town, or we’re more aware of the excitement of live performance, but it is true that when you set down in Boston with a touring performance, audiences are usually just over the top for it," Ambrosino continued.
"When a tour comes into town, a tour is just a Broadway production that’s on the road. It’s the same production, basically, though sometimes there are some changes that can happen on the road. The Lyric is doing its own production of ’Avenue Q.’ Obviously, it’s the same script and the same score and we’re working with the same puppets, but it’s Spiro Veloudas directing, so that’s a different thing."
And speaking of the Lyric, Ambrosino was full of praise for the company and its artistic director.
"The [Boston] market itself is crowded with companies because of that, I think, and because we have a great group of artists that want to fill that need. I feel that really great work is being, done, and the Lyric is obviously at the head of that.
"When I was producing and directing with Animus, it was so exciting to be part of the small to midsize community in Boston, because you can find stuff in Boston that is incredible experimental," Ambrosino continued. "At the same time, you can also find stuff that is classic. It runs the gamut. Also, I think the community is very close-knit, and so there is a sense of camaraderie that’s exciting as well."