Actors give life to the puppets of Avenue Q

Photo by DAVIS C. HOTARDEmily Wright plays Kate Monster and Roger Wilhelmi is Princeton in Theatre Baton Rouge's Avenue Q.
Photo by DAVIS C. HOTARDEmily Wright plays Kate Monster and Roger Wilhelmi is Princeton in Theatre Baton Rouge's Avenue Q.

In Avenue Q, Princeton didn’t find a place to live right away. There were inquiries. Requests.

It all started with a bachelor of arts in English and a mission to find his life’s purpose. And in the end, after landing on an avenue of cheap rent, Princeton discovers that life is more than a purpose; it’s about living.

It’s a story told by Roger Wilhelmi, whose life, in a small way, reflects Princeton’s.

Wilhelmi also is a recent college graduate with a degree in chemical engineering from Arizona State University.

He followed life’s path not only to Baton Rouge but through Theatre Baton Rouge’s glass doors, where he hoped to audition for the summer musical Les Miserables.

“But I was a week late,” Wilhelmi said. “They said, ‘You can’t audition for Les Mis, but we have this other musical coming up.’ So I thought, ‘Why not?’”

Wilhelmi just may have found his purpose by sticking around. Well, the purpose for his extracurricular time during the summer, anyway.

Here’s a guy whose experience on the stage is limited to performing with an a cappella choir, and now he’s in the lead role in Theatre Baton Rouge’s production of the Broadway hit musical.

Wilhelmi is Princeton. And it’s fair to say that, for though he’ll be operating a puppet named Princeton, Wilhelmi is the actor who gives the puppet life.

It’s the same with Emily Wright, whose character is kindergarten teaching assistant Kate Monster. She’s Princeton’s next-door love interest, and she has her own story to tell.

“She’s not quite the fresh-faced girl next door,” Wright says. “She’s perky and optimistic, but she’s not naive. She loves her students, but she’s kind of stuck. So, the others help her push toward her purpose.”

Kate is perched on Wright’s left arm. Kate doesn’t react to Wright’s conversation, but she could.

“Keith has been great about letting us take our rehearsal puppets home,” Wright said. “I’ve been driving my family crazy, because I’ve been talking through her at home.”

Director Keith Dixon says the theater is renting the puppets through Music Theatre International.

Preparing for a role is tough enough without having to prepare for two. And Avenue Q requires each of its actors to perform through Muppet-like puppets.

“So, whatever we have to do whatever we make them do,” Wright says. “We have to project our emotions through them. If Kate Monster is surprised, I have to look surprised, too. If she’s sad, I have to look sad. We have to convey all of the emotions that can’t be conveyed through them.”

“So the audience will be looking at both the puppets and the actors,” Dixon adds. “It’s been fascinating watching this play develop during rehearsals.”

Just because the stage will be filled with puppet-toting actors doesn’t mean that Avenue Q is Disneyesque. With characters like Trekkie the Internet “sexpert,” Rod the Republican who others suspect is gay, and the Bad Idea Bears who encourage others to make bad decisions, the story promises to offend.

“But it also has a lot of heart,” Wright says.

“I think people who aren’t familiar with the show will be very surprised. There will be times when they’re laughing and times when they’ll choke up.”

Because everyone will have known someone who has lived on Avenue Q.

And many are still searching for their life’s purpose.