Theatre Aspen’s ‘Avenue Q’: Musical theater with quirks
ASPEN – Mark Martino used to watch his Italian-born grandfather listen to opera on the hi-fi, so moved by what he heard that he would cry. Martino got some of the old man’s appreciation for music: “There’s an Italian love of the passion, the idea that you can say so much in song. In song, you cut so much to the heart of the emotional stuff,” he said.But Martino isn’t from Italy. He was born and raised in Indianapolis. So instead of getting the Italian’s adoration of opera, he has gravitated toward a more American art form. Martino has found his muse in musical theater, and he seems to find it every bit as satisfying as his grandfather found opera.”I love theater, period. But musicals hit me where I live,” he said. “It’s uniquely American. We’re the only ones; we’ve created it in this format. Music allows us to say something that words don’t, which is an incredibly theatrical idea. In a perfect musical, when you can’t talk any more, you have to sing. It’s a way we have found to express ourselves.”Musical theater might be thought of as opera, democratized. Martino pointed out that musical theater tends to tell stories of ordinary life, where older, more European art forms told of kings and conquerors.”We don’t have Shakespeare. But we have Rodgers & Hammerstein, Rodgers & Hart, Lerner & Loewe,” he said on Wednesday morning, on the patio outside Peach’s caf. Asked his favorite musical, Martino didn’t pause in choosing “A Chorus Line,” which he directed in a national tour in the mid-’90s. Nor did he have trouble pinpointing what he loved about Michael Bennett’s Pulitzer Prize-winning piece: “It does what American musical theater does best. It tells the stories of people whose stories are often overlooked. They’re not kings, not royals; it takes song, dance and acting and tells the story of theater artists. ‘A Chorus Line’ says, ‘Every person you see has a story and let’s find out what it is.’ These faceless people in a chorus line have incredibly complex, comic, tragic lives. It’s incredibly personal and incredibly moving. I did the show an entire year and never got tired of it and I was sad to see it close. For me, it’s the perfect musical.”Over the last few years Martino has been sharing his love for musical theater with Aspen audiences. In 2008, Martino made his Theatre Aspen debut with a splendid version of “Little Shop of Horrors,” the 1982 faux-horror musical that mixed ’60s doo-wop, gore and a maniacal plant bent on world domination. The following year Martino returned and upped the ante, introducing Theatre Aspen audiences to “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee,” a razor-sharp show about misfit kids that had debuted on Broadway just four years earlier.Martino has been back in Aspen the last month, working on another new-to-Aspen musical: “Avenue Q,” the show, populated largely by R-rated hand-puppets, that debuted on Broadway in 2003 and earned three Tony Awards, including for best musical. The production opened Wednesday, and has dates at Theatre Aspen through July 21. This week, “Avenue Q” shows Friday and Saturday, and Monday through Friday, July 2-6.••••Martino got hooked early on movie musicals, the classics of the genre: “Singin’ in the Rain,” “The Wizard of Oz,” “An American in Paris.” In high school, he discovered that being on stage performing the musicals was even more fun than watching them on TV. At the College of William & Mary, in Virginia, he majored in theater with an emphasis on directing, then taught drama at a high school in northern Virginia. After two years of teaching, he headed for New York City – “where my art form was most vibrant,” he said.Unlike the characters in “A Chorus Line,” Martino has had a smooth time in the Manhattan theater world. For 20 years he had steady work as an actor and dancer, working on Broadway, Off Broadway, in regional and road productions. “I never had another job. I don’t have those stories,” he said.About 10 years ago, an artistic director whom Martino had worked with invited him to direct a show – “No, No, Nanette,” the 1925 farce that produced the song “Tea for Two” – at the Cape Playhouse, a Cape Cod theater company that Martino says is much like Theatre Aspen.”I said, ‘I’m actually trained for that. Yeah, I’ll do it,'” Martino said. “And I loved every bit of it. It’s very exciting to see your vision realized. You gather these collaborators together and use all of their talents – particularly in a musical. I like the organization part of it, because my mind works that way. But to see it go from the beginning vision, what you thought it would look like, and then see it look like that, that’s very fulfilling.”Martino had a new career, returning repeatedly to the Cape Playhouse, and also forming ongoing relationships with Florida’s Maltz Jupiter Theatre and North Shore Music Theatre in Boston. On Thursday, he left Aspen for Cape Cod to direct “Legally Blonde” and “Kiss Me Kate”; from there he goes to Boston for “Guys and Dolls,” then to Florida for “The Music Man,” which takes him into November.Martino shares an agent with Paige Price, Theatre Aspen’s artistic director, and the agent suggested the two work together. Price happened to need a director for “Little Shop of Horrors” who could also choreograph, and Martino was suited to the role. Martino enjoyed all aspects of working at Theatre Aspen, especially the commitment to quality work.”The thing about collaborating with a group of theater artists is so true here,” he said. “Starting with Paige, who assembles the group. Everyone is working at the highest level to produce something we’re proud of. When you find theater where that’s the goal, you stick around.”Among the things that has made Martino stick with directing is his admiration for the talent of actors. Or more accurately, their multiple talents.”It’s such a huge set of skills – you have to sing with intention, and you have to act,” he said. “And I love when that all comes together. It’s such a vast talent to sing all those notes and express yourself in dance at the same time.”In his current Aspen show, the skill set gets even bigger. “Avenue Q” requires performers to not only sing, act and dance, but to act simultaneously as puppeteers. Most of the actors control hand puppets, and do their acting through their puppets. And most of the actors do multiple puppets. And because there is no time for the puppets to undergo costume changes, there are a total of some 40 puppets to manage. It becomes a tango of acting, singing, puppet maneuvers, body movement, one-liners and backstage logistics that is mind-boggling in its complexity, but made almost transparent onstage.”It’s the single most difficult piece of theater I’ve ever worked on,” Martino said. “It’s such a daunting task for an actor because they have to master a fourth skill. And they have to master it – they can’t fake it.””Avenue Q” is likewise tricky on the content side – a “Sesame Street”-inspired show that looks like children’s fare, but most definitely is not. (It bears repeating: Do NOT bring the kids, unless you want to explain to them porn, racism, unemployment and the deep-seated insecurity that is endemic to being an adult.) The show seems to capture a quintessentially American predicament, and one very much of the moment: the struggle to make the transition into full adulthood, which means wrestling with career, domicile, relationships, identity and grand aspirations. The show opens on a massive, but quite humorous complaint, with the number “It Sucks To Be Me.” By the final scene, “For Now,” the sluts, rejects and sexually confused on “Avenue Q” are learning to take a breath and focus at least a little on the present.”I love what the show says. Everyone has been 23 and saying, ‘What the hell am I doing with my life?'” Martino said. “The ending doesn’t tie it up in a bow, but it says it won’t always suck, that life is a continuum, and embrace the moment.”It’s such a smart piece. People laugh because it’s puppets saying things you’ve never heard a puppet say before. But there’s so much wisdom, so many truths popping up. It’s the most irreligious show that ultimately tells you, You need to believe in something. You need to believe in other people. You need faith.”The show reaffirms Martino’s faith in the American musical. “Avenue Q” – which beat out “Wicked” for the Best Musical Tony – was written by Robert Lopez; he went on to write another Best Musical winner, “The Book of Mormon,” with the creators of “South Park.”Martino lists the cast members in “Avenue Q,” and points out which musical theater department each one went to.”When I was in school, there was no emphasis on musical theater,” he said. “But now, they’re breeding. Robert Lopez – he’s got more musicals in him. It’s alive and well. It’s not going anywhere.”email@example.com
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