The opening night performance of Avenue Q was a highly polished and entertaining show. Avenue Q is one of my favourite musicals, and the only show I have had the good fortune of seeing on the West End, so I was prepared for this version to not stand up to my expectations. I was extremely pleased, however, to find it to be of an incredibly high standard.
If you are not familiar with the show, it has been described as a parody of Sesame Street, with cast being made of both actors and puppets (with their puppeteers visible). It tells the story of a recent College graduate making his way in the real world for the first time, and the characters he meets in his less than desirable neighbourhood. It’s often off colour and highly non-PC humour has caused it to be described as a cross between Sesame Street and South Park, but I disagree. The clever writing and astute observations hidden within the humour, make what could have been offensive, instead highly amusing, and both relevant and acceptable to most people. (While I personally can’t stand South Park!). The audience last night certainly contained a wide mix of types, and all seemed to universally find the show highly enjoyable. There was a kind of startled aspect to the laughter that suggested many in the audience were not already fans of the show, and therefore were not expecting the exact nature of some of the jokes, but no-one appeared shocked or offended. Having said that, it is absolutely not a show for children, or puritanical types!
Vocally, none of the cast put a foot wrong, and their characterisation was spot on. The strong, dynamic sound and flawless harmonies were a credit to Musical Director David Wisken, and the whole cast. Jordan Pollard, playing both the central character of Princeton, and Rod, spent a lot of time on stage, and gave a consistently entertaining performance with both characters. His voice was strong and versatile, and his facial expressions and mannerism matched with his puppet perfectly. The entire cast played their characters emotions and reactions in a rather over the top, pantomime-esque manner – such as the puppets literally vibrating with rage. But this works perfectly with the nature of the show, allowing the puppets to present emotion without being able to change their facial expressions to a large degree, and with the actor’s expressions filling in the blanks. Sarah Golding, who also played two characters – Princeton’s love interest Kate Monster, and the brief appearances of Lucy the Slut, also gave a powerful performance. Golding did a beautiful rendition of my favourite song from the show, There’s a Fine, Fine Line. Zuleika Khan was full of exuberance and attitude that perfectly captured the iconic character of Gary Coleman, delivering all ‘his’ trademark lines with exactly the right inflection. Andy McDougall brought both Nicky and Trekkie Monster to life, assisted by various ensemble members as both puppets were primarily operated by two people. Having two people work together to present one character is extremely challenging, but each combination of cast managed to do so seamlessly. McDougall supplied the highly stylised character voices and excellent comic timing for these two characters who provided much of the comic relief. Leah Lim, as Christmas Eve, and Michael Lindner as Brian were the two ‘human’ members of the cast, and played extremely well off each other, although Lindner’s reactions were sometimes a little stilted. Lim was extremely impressive in her role, both myself and my companion agreeing we enjoyed her portrayal more than Naoko Mori’s in London. The ensemble members Kathleen Amarant, Brett Fisher, Imogen Moore and Jeff van de Zandt were also very strong in their various roles.
This style of puppetry uses the actors own legs to represent the character’s, with the puppet appearing from the waist up. McDougall’s Puppetry Direction and Michael Ralph’s Choreography combine to bring additional life to the characters, and the combination of movement between actor and puppet was done extremely well. Not only in the sometimes complicated dance routines, but in general interactions, where even though the actors were portraying their character through their own face as well as the puppet, the interactions between the characters were always directly to the puppets. This aspect of how the actors portrayed the characters through their own face was one of the major differences I noted from the previous professional version I have seen, where the actors remained fairly deadpan, aiming for the puppets to have all the attention. While it was entertaining, and clearer in some ways to see the emotion so clearly on the faces of the actors in this version, it did constantly pull my attention away from the puppets. I had to keep reminding myself to watch the puppets instead. I did however hear another audience member state the opposite, that after a while they almost forgot the actors were there, so mine was not a universal viewpoint.
For the most part, Director Stephen Wheat has followed closely the original approach, with staging adapted slightly for a smaller venue, and a few twists thrown in for humour and local colour. The fairly straightforward set consisted of 3 buildings, each with a number of doors and windows that allowed the characters options for entrances and exits, and which are central to the structure of the show. I caught a few variations where Wheat had put his own stamp on things… Loud as the Hell You Want featured some humourous additions, and the ongoing use of a television screen to present Sesame Street style interludes (including some local political humour!) was very effective.
Avenue Q was a highly entertaining and professional performance from all concerned. If you already have tickets for this season, you are extremely fortunate and are guaranteed an excellent night out, and if you don’t, you are doomed to disappointment, as the entire season has already sold out!