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Split Stage's 'Avenue Q' not your typical puppet show

| Thursday, June 5, 2014, 5:49 p.m.
Split Stage Productions will perform 'Avenue Q' at the Greensburg Garden and Civic Center on Friday, Saturday and June 12-14. All shows start at 8 p.m. In the cast are (front, from left) Allison Petrillo with Kate Monster, Michael David Stoddard with Princeton and David Mahokey with Nicky, and (back) Courtney Harkins, Adam Grossett with Rod, Marissa Buchheit and Ben Wren.
SUBMITTED
Split Stage Productions will perform 'Avenue Q' at the Greensburg Garden and Civic Center on Friday, Saturday and June 12-14. All shows start at 8 p.m. In the cast are (front, from left) Allison Petrillo with Kate Monster, Michael David Stoddard with Princeton and David Mahokey with Nicky, and (back) Courtney Harkins, Adam Grossett with Rod, Marissa Buchheit and Ben Wren.
Split Stage Productions will perform 'Avenue Q' at the Greensburg Garden and Civic Center on Friday, Saturday and June 12-14. All shows start at 8 p.m. In the cast are (front, from left) Michael David Stoddard with Princeton and Allison Petrillo with Kate Monster; and (back) Ben Wren, Courtney Harkins and Marissa Buchheit.
SUBMITTED
Split Stage Productions will perform 'Avenue Q' at the Greensburg Garden and Civic Center on Friday, Saturday and June 12-14. All shows start at 8 p.m. In the cast are (front, from left) Michael David Stoddard with Princeton and Allison Petrillo with Kate Monster; and (back) Ben Wren, Courtney Harkins and Marissa Buchheit.

Split Stage Productions is set to return to the Greensburg Garden and Civic Center, where co-founders Rob Jessup of Murrysville and Nate Newell of Greensburg will lead the company through its sophomore production of the Tony Award-winning musical, “Avenue Q.”

“This is a show I've been dying to do, because not many companies are willing to take on a lot of its content. I'm overjoyed to be part of this production,” said Jessup. “This is the Broadway show that everyone who ever says they aren't a theater person always, absolutely loves.”

Following the success of their debut musical “Rent” last September, the duo is prepared to tackle another Broadway hit. “Avenue Q” premiered Thursday night and will run Friday, Saturday and June 12-14, with Jessup serving as director and Newell as the set and lighting designer. All performances begin at 8 p.m.

“We chose ‘Avenue Q,' because we wanted to do something completely different. The content in ‘Rent' hit so much harder when it came to real-life issues, such as the AIDS epidemic,” Jessup said. “‘Avenue Q' still addresses real life issues, but it really softens the blow. We talk about racism, homosexuality, and even mobsters addicted to internet pornography, but we do it using puppets.”

Jessup said the show emulates such pop-culture phenomena as “South Park,” “Team America” and Jim Henson's “The Muppets.” The show consists of seven actors portraying a total of 14 characters. Eleven of those characters are puppets.

“‘Rent' had a much bigger cast and delivered a more serious and emotional impact. ‘Avenue Q' is a straight-up comedy from start to finish,” said Jessup. “We've got a group of fresh faces in this cast, which makes things even more exciting.”

One of Split Stage's new additions is their musical director, Lena Gabriel.

“Lena brings such positive energy to the show. It's great to see her get so excited when we're working on the music,” Jessup said. “You can tell she's bubbling over when she works with our talented cast.”

“Avenue Q” opened on Broadway in July 2003. It won three Tony Awards, including Best Musical. Split Stage's production stays true to the show's original content, while adding a few area-specific touches. It is co-choreographed by Missy Newell and Michael Stoddard.

Although many of Split Stage's cast are familiar with each other, none have worked together before this production. It's the combination of a close-knit cast and Jessup's directorial debut that's expected to aid in the show's success.

“Having a smaller cast allows us to spend more time with each actor and bring out the deepest parts of each storyline. It's much more intimate, and the performance is stronger when the cast gets to know each other on that level,” Jessup said. “They're all so unbelievably talented. We instantly became a family. Add the incredible music and choreography, and there's so much about this show that the audience can relate to.”

Split Stage Productions prides itself on utilizing local talent and venues. Jessup and Newell prefer to keep all aspects of their shows within Westmoreland County, as well as provide locals with entertainment they may not have access to.

“The basis of our company is to provide audiences with the shows they want to see. We give local talent opportunities they may not have in this area otherwise,” said Jessup. “For those who couldn't go see shows like ‘Avenue Q' on Broadway, we're bringing the show to them. Everyone needs to see this show. It's unbelievable.”

General admission is $20. Those who present a student I.D. receive discounted admission of $12. Tickets are available at www.splitstage.com. Tickets can also be purchased by calling Showclix at 1-888-718-4253.

“Taking on this large of a production has been such a challenge, but it's such an exciting endeavor,” said Jessup. “Even without all the Tony Awards, ‘Avenue Q' has all the makings of becoming an instant cult classic. It's the show every audience member will love.”

Kaylie Harper is a contributing writer for Trib Total Media.

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