From the moment the TV screens in the auditorium began rolling with advertising from key sponsors, the audience knew that Brisbane Arts Theatre’s production of Avenue Q is going to be a great night. To have the characters of Avenue Q out and about at the local café and at an art class gave a taste of what was to come, and beautifully set up the tone for the evening.
Walking into the intimate theatre space, the audience saw the set in situ. The depiction of a street in a less than salubrious neighbourhood was well detailed with mismatching walls and doors, creeping ivy and rusty garbage cans in the street. The set is a credit to its creators (Sarah Jensen, Alex Jensen, and Alex Lanham) for it certainly makes the most of a small stage area – the swing out interiors for Kate Monster and Princeton’s apartment were simple and gave a little more insight to the characters. One masterstroke was the way in which the top, middle portion of the set dropped away for a key reveal near the end of Act One.
Ryan McDonald’s lighting design added the right mood to the show. Daytime and nighttime were well delineated, the Vegas lighting during ‘You Can Be As Loud As The Hell You Want (When You’re Making Love)’ was great fun, and the audience’s focus was drawn appropriately to scenes using only half the stage. At times, performers were not fully lit and all it would have taken was, for example, a half step towards centre stage to remedy the issue. This is something that can certainly be addressed as the run of the show continues. One perfect moment of a character being lit so very well was Kate Monster in her closing number of Act One. We saw the puppet illuminated while the actor stood outside of the focus of the spotlight – a wonderful effect.
When the orchestra began the opening music to take us to Avenue Q, it was clear that music director Faron Swingler had not only assembled a talented group of musicians, but that he was also leading a tight ship. At all times, the band were together and produced a balanced sound. For the most part, the sound design by chief audio engineer Bradley Hebbard served the production well, as the audience did not have to strain to hear performers, and there was good balance between the singers and the musicians. At one point, Kate Monster’s microphone cut out, and it is a testament to the performer (Lara Boyle) that she could still be heard during ‘Mix Tape’.
Co-directors John Boyce and Katherine Alpert have overseen what is a very familiar production of Avenue Q, bringing to it all of the moments fans of the show have come to expect. The puppet/person interactions have been well thought out and rehearsed in order that focus goes to the puppet and not the puppeteer. In addition to this, they have chosen to add to the number of puppets who live on Avenue Q, bringing more colour and an extra dynamic to the production. The inclusion of two puppets who clearly live on another street is a bold and rather risky choice, but it was a choice which the audience very much enjoyed.
While the main part of the set is static, there are numerous scene changes that require the stage crew to bring on and strike various props. The crew worked seamlessly and quietly, however, there were some changes that were rather long and these gaps in performance were awkward. It is in these moments when use of the TV monitors in the auditorium could be used to show additional clips to continue the action while the scene changes take place. One flat moment came right at the end of the show – the blackout right before curtain calls. It was clear that the lights up cue was dependent on all cast members being ready to step through the stage level doors, but it took some time for key players to make their way from the top level of the set to the stage floor. To have everyone appear all at once is certainly a hit of energy, but to have to wait so long for that moment rather lessened the impact.
With each of the puppeteers dressed in their own personal blacks, costume designer Frances Foo had the task of dressing the three human residents of Avenue Q. Foo put the trio in outfits that are synonymous with the characters. One hilarious inclusion was the ever-changing utensil dangling from the middle of Gary Coleman’s belt – a nod, perhaps, to the fact that a female actor traditionally performs the role. With Brian and Gary both wearing ‘street clothes’, it was puzzling to see Christmas Eve wearing jazz dance sneakers when a pair of black flats would have made more sense.
Key to the success of any presentation of this show is the cast of puppets. Brisbane Arts Theatre first staged Avenue Q back in 2012, with a reprise season in 2014. For this 2015 production, Scott Richards and Lierre Beutel have created some new puppets. Across the board, the structure and design of all the puppets is so strong that they are recognisable as having been made in the image of the original Broadway puppets. However, some of the original puppets (created by Fortune Theatre, New Zealand) from the 2012 season are beginning to show signs of age, simply from repeated use
As a whole unit, the cast were very strong, with some individual performances shining brighter than others. William Toft delivered a charming Princeton with strong, clear singing and well metered dialogue. Toft even imbued Princeton with his own vibrato: every time Toft held a note, Princeton had the smallest of jaw wobbles – a delight to watch. Lara Boyle handled Kate Monster with aplomb. A very expressive singer, Boyle made Kate very real and vulnerable, and really found the heart of the character. ‘There’s a Fine, Fine Line’ was a highlight of the show.
Trent Richards took on the double role of Trekkie Monster and Nicky. He showed great comedic timing as Trekkie and had the unmistakable Cookie Monster-style voice down pat. As Nicky, Richards was goofy and loveable with a voice to match. His vocals and interaction with Gary Coleman for ‘Schadenfreude’ were fabulous and greatly appreciated by the audience.
As Nicky’s roommate Rod, Garry Farmer was consistent throughout the night in vocal performance and character delivery. His performance of “My Girlfriend, who Lives in Canada’ brought down the house. Farmer’s own individual facial expressions are very strong and they certainly carried over into his vocal colours, but at times, they pulled focus from the Rod puppet. Lauren Ashlea Fraser performed Lucy The Slut. Fraser certainly gave the character the right saucy, torch singer tone of voice, but she did experience some pitch issues during ‘Special’.
The Bad Idea Bears are always a crowd favourite, and this incarnation of Avenue Q was no exception. Connor Clarke and Hannah Hearder were suitably evil and cheeky in equal measure, and they bounced off each other very well. The supporting ensemble operated the extra puppets, and when the full cast sang, the blend of voices was as one.
At times, some puppeteers did not have the mouth of their puppet in sync with the dialogue being delivered (notably Rod and Lucy). It is a very narrow line to walk, between not giving enough and giving too much, and it is one that I am sure the cast will continue to walk together.
Thom Gregg presented an easy-going Brian with vocals to match. As a character Brian is laid-back, a trait which Gregg captured, but when he is in emcee/comedian mode at the Around the Clock Café, Gregg needed to bring more energy to the character. As Christmas Eve, Katherine Alpert was consistent in her characterisation of this fishwife-like woman. While it is a requirement that the Christmas Eve be given a caricaturised Asian accent, Alpert did at times push that accent a little too far, which resulted in some of her lines being unintelligible. ‘The More You Ruv Someone’ was sung by Alpert with great confidence and vocal security, but the use of three different vocal colours throughout the song and a rewrite of the vocal line at the end of the number undermined the consistency of character she had worked so hard to achieve.
An audience favourite, Natalie Mead shone as Gary Coleman. A wonderful combination of cheeriness, contempt, cynicism, and kookiness, Mead gives us a Gary who is likely to say (and do) the things the rest of society are too afraid to say. Mead has a ripping belt voice and it was showcased in Gary’s two big numbers, ‘Schadenfreude’ and ‘You Can Be As Loud As The Hell You Want (When You’re Making Love)’, both of which Mead clearly revels in performing.
Brisbane Arts Theatre’s Avenue Q is a great night out – excellent performances supported by great technical work. Brisbane locals are fortunate to have this boutique company presenting works of such quality. Thus far in the season, some performances have already sold out, so buy your tickets NOW.
Avenue Q is showing at Brisbane Arts Theatre on Petrie Terrace until December 19th. Ticket info can be found at http://www.artstheatre.com.au
**This production of Avenue Q is double cast, so some of the performers pictured are not the performers mentioned in this review.