Jeff Whitty (book), Robert Lopez and Jeff Marx (original concept and music and lyrics)
Selladoor, Showtime Theatre, Richard Darbourne Limited and ABG Productions
Palace Theatre, Manchester
Robert Lopez, who wrote the music and lyrics for Avenue Q with Jeff Marx, also contributed to The Book of Mormon, which many people find highly offensive. Yet, Lopez has also written songs for Disney musicals. This contradictory mixture of the profane and the sweetly innocent is a characteristic of Avenue Q that may account for the show’s lasting appeal.
Avenue Q is a downmarket inner-city street setting an example for harmonious living—its diverse population all get along together including those who are Furry Monsters. However, for the residents of Avenue Q life sucks; although comparatively young, they all long for an earlier happy time when they were in college. New neighbour Princeton (Lawrence Smith) is coming to realise a BA in English is not much help in the jobs market. Rod (also Smith) is gay but desperately hiding in the closet. Kate Monster (Cecily Redman) feels the fact she is, well, a monster, may impede her search for a boyfriend. The Bad Idea Bears, who pop up offering advice that is not helpful, make the whole situation more complex.
Lopez and Mark pay tribute to the works of Jim Henson and not just in the extensive use of fuzzy puppets interacting with humans. Characters learn the meaning of certain words and gain vital life experience. Although the life lessons are more adult in nature than would have been the case in The Muppet Show, the tone is wide-eyed and non-judgemental as characters learn to accept everyone is a little bit racist and the Internet is for porn.
Although Avenue Q covers topics that are controversial, it would not be appropriate to set a grim, realistic atmosphere. After all, half the cast are clearly manipulating puppets and making no effort to disguise the fact their lips are moving when the puppets speak. Director and choreographer Cressida Carré sets an exaggerated cartoonish tone. Characters skip rather than walk across the stage.
Despite the potential for outrage, it becomes impossible to take offence. The sweet nature of the characters makes their occasional use of the odd four-letter word all the funnier. A sex scene between two puppets is so ridiculously graphic as to be comedic rather than arousing. Saori Oda as Christmas Eve provocatively hits every possible racial stereotype for a Japanese character transposing the letters ‘r’ and ‘l’ every time she speaks to the extent that she seems to be daring the audience to take offence.
The high level of potentially offensive material in the script allows the producers to sneakily draw attention to aspects that really are outrageous—that, in this day and age, Rod still feels ashamed of his sexuality.
Putting aside the controversial nature of the material, Avenue Q gets the basics right: the tunes are memorable enough to be hummed on leaving the theatre and the lyrics are hilarious. An enthusiastic cast gets the tone spot-on with Cecily Redman giving a particularly strong performance. Redman has the ideal cartoonish approach to the material: very expressive, slightly exaggerated facial reactions and eager vocals.
Avenue Q is at The Palace until Saturday and touring—audiences are encouraged to take up residence.
Reviewer: David Cunningham