Former, current Hilberry stars shine

Untitled-1Hilberry stars are shining bright, as the current company launches its season with Tony Award-winning musical “Avenue Q,” and Hilberry alumna Sarah Hawkins continues in Open Book Theatre Company’s “Ada and the Engine.”

A laughter-evoking, Sesame Street-like musical for grownups, “Avenue Q,” with a Tony Award-winning score, music and book, launches the Hilberry’s season as Princeton and his neighbors navigate the rocky and sometimes hilarious reality of adulthood.

The show runs 8 p.m. Sept. 21, 22, 28 and 29, and Oct. 5 and 6; 7 p.m. Sept. 27 and Oct. 4; 2 p.m. Sept. 22, 26 and 29; and 3 p.m. Oct. 7 at the Hilberry Theater, 4743 Cass in Detroit.

The show is performed by actors manipulating the puppets they carry around, which seems odd until one gets caught up in the action and blends the actor and puppet persona into one without hesitation.

Directing the people and puppets is Michael J. Barnes, with Quint Mediate as Princeton and Rod; Jacob Chapman as Brian; Lani Williams as Kate Monster; Matt Smith as Nicky; Eliana Barwinski as Christmas Eve; Jasmine Walker as Gary Coleman; Sarah Summerwell as Lucy the Slut, Mrs. Thistletwat, and a Bad Idea Bear; Tobias Wilson as a Bad Idea Bear; and John Bergeron as Trekkie Monster.
The ensemble includes Katie Akers, Stephanie Bedore, Lexie Farrer, Luke Hodgson and Jake Rydell.
The story begins when Princeton is ready to start life after college, but with no work experience, a B.A. in English and not much money, his prospects seem limited until he ends up on Avenue Q, where he meets other puppets: Kate Monster, a kindergarten teaching assistant; Nicky, a slacker; Rod, an uptight investment banker; Trekkie Monster, a recluse obsessed with the Internet; Lucy, a vamp, and the self-explanatory Bad Idea Bears. The human characters are Brian, a laid-back guy engaged to Christmas Eve, a therapist and Japanese immigrant; and grown up Gary Coleman, the building superintendent.
Barnes said the puppets, which he describes as “brash and naughty,” can get away with saying things that humans cannot.
“It is easier for audiences to distance themselves from the offensive points the puppets raise,” he said. “Prior to this century, puppets were used to tell stories that were really too taboo for humans.”
Mediate said the story is intelligently told.
“It parodies children shows like The Muppets and Sesame Street and turns it into adult humor,” he said. “The writing is brilliant, and the story has a smart concept.”

Mediate said audiences will relate to his character, Princeton.
“We all remember what it is like to move out of your parents’ home and face the world on your own,” he said. “The prospect of being alone is thrilling and exciting, but we all learn that the real world can be really difficult.”
Williams said Kate Monster is naive, with a big heart she is eager to share with someone.
“I absolutely love Kate Monster, and I hope the audience loves these puppets,” she said. “They have totally come to life for me, and the show is pure magic because of the puppets. Come to ‘Avenue Q’ to experience a night full of laughter, shock, love, tears and puppet sex – or maybe not.”
Tickets are $28, with a $5 discount for seniors, alumni, faculty and staff, and an $11 discount for students. For more information or to order, call 313-577-2972 or go to theatreanddanceatwayne.com.

OBTC’S ‘ADA AND THE ENGINE’ IS A FASCINATING DELIGHT

Lauren Gunderson is the most performed playwright in the United States, second only to Shakespeare, which comes as a surprise until one experiences her work, with intelligent, witty dialogue and intriguing stories, which attracts theaters to her work and in turn builds an audience fan base.
Gunderson’s “Ada and the Engine,” like “Emilie,” which Open Book Theatre Company performed last season, is about a strong, intelligent woman ahead of her time, breaking gender stereotypes, and blending philosophy and emotion with a scientific story.
Well-directed by Krista Schafer Ewbank of Grosse Ile Township, the cast includes Sarah Hawkins of Hazel Park as Ada, Lindel Salow of Dearborn as Charles Babbage, Joshua Brown of Brownstown Township as Lord Lovelace, Kez Settle of Detroit as Anabella Byron, Cynthia Szczesny of Grosse Ile Township as Mary Sommerville and Matthew Wallace of Rochester Hills as Lord Byron.
Hilberry alumna Hawkins is captivating as Ada, a brilliant mathematician whose parallel love for music and the arts enables her to expand her concept of mathematics to apply it to practical ideas – she took Babbage’s analytic engine idea and found ways to make it – in theory – solve real life problems.
Gunderson takes the lives of historical figures and breathes humanity into them, creating personalities, quirks, romantic notions and flashes of brilliance. Hawkins lends her energy and talent to bringing Ada to life, unfolding the story with other colorful characters and drawing the house into the time period and her character’s passions.
Salow, likewise, humanizes Babbage, whom we like despite his personality flaws; he becomes a fatherly mentor with ego added.
Kez Settle is quite convincing as Ada’s overbearing mother, and delivers a character one loves to hate.
Wallace’s egoistical, posturing portrayal of Lord Byron is fun to watch as well.

Eric Niece’s set design is beautiful, with a wall of moving gears, enhanced as always by Harley Miah’s transforming lighting.
“Ada and the Engine” is about more than early computer pioneers ahead of their time – it’s about human spirit, exploring ideas, and pushing boundaries into the unknown. The strong script, with talented actors and insightful direction is well worth seeing.
The run continues at 8 p.m. Sept. 21, 22, 28 and 29, and Oct. 4 to 6, and 2 p.m. Sept.16, 23 and 30 at the Open Book Theatre Company, 1621 West Road, Trenton.
Tickets are $25, with a $5 discount for seniors and a $10 discount for students with identification. For more information or to order, call 734-288-7753 or go to openbooktc.com.