When Avenue Q opened last week at Her Majesty’s Theatre in Melbourne, it was a dream come true for leading man Ross Hannaford, who voices and puppeteers the characters of Princeton and Rod.

Ross Hannaford with Rod

Hannaford first saw Avenue Q about ten years ago on Broadway.

“I was about 21 and I thought, secretly and quietly to myself, ‘Gosh, I’d love to be in that show one day,’ and then it finally happened 10 years later!” exclaimed Hannaford.

Avenue Q recently celebrated 13 years on Broadway but as Hannaford explained, “It still feels just as relevant to me now as it did 10 years ago. The themes and issues are in the news today still – and that’s what I love about it, because everyone in their own way can relate to it. It’s testament to its very clever writing.”

What makes this musical unique is that it requires performers to master a new skill: puppetry. The cast spent a week learning the art of puppetry about 6 weeks before actual rehearsals commenced. This allowed the cast to practice and refine their skills in advance.

“The main thing is being able to display the puppet correctly so it can emulate the emotions you are trying to convey to people,” said Hannford, who explained he spent a lot of time in front of a mirror whilst working on the script to see what worked and ensure he was holding the puppet correctly.

Ross Hannaford with Rod three

Initially, Hannaford said he really noticed how quickly his arms would fatigue.

“The first time I got on the floor and we ran the show I thought, ‘My arm feels like its going to fall off!’ I was trying to get my hand to open to get it to speak and I just couldn’t! I ended up shaking my arm. I think it’s a new skill set and a new muscle that I wasn’t used to.”

Avenue Q tackles a range of controversial issues and Hannaford loves hearing a big reaction from the audiences who come to see it. Hannaford admits he is often surprised by the comments made by his characters, Princeton and Rod, that he would never expect to come from his own mouth.

The puppets effectively come to life even before the lights come up on stage or the action takes place. Hannaford explained the puppets are like an extension of the actors. While he said it’s comforting to appear with the character as if it’s another person, he also admits it’s weird!

“ It’s a fascinating part of puppeteering that I didn’t expect!” commented Hannaford.

Ross Hannaford with Princeton

Ross Hannaford recently played the role of Skimbleshanks, the railway cat, in the Australian tour of CATS, to great critical acclaim. After having to arrive two and a half hours before the show to prepare the extensive make up required in CATS, Hannaford said it’s a pleasure to have such minimal preparation in Avenue Q.

“It’s the complete opposite to CATS! I came in and put some deodorant on, then the mic guy came and did my hair and I thought, ‘Oh – is that it?’” laughed Hannaford.

Ross Hannaford with Princeton close up

Avenue Q opened to rave reviews.

“This cast and this group of people have really made it their own … it’s really incredible to watch some of the skill amongst this cast – my jaw just drops!”

Ross Hannaford with Sophie Wright

Hannaford said this latest production of Avenue Q feels like the same show he saw on Broadway ten years ago, but it feels stretched. It’s evolved.

“You know what works and how to hit the audience correctly with jokes – and also musically we’ve stretched it too. So we’ve found new ways to make it our own. I hope an audience that has seen it can still come back and enjoy it again,” said Hannaford.

Avenue Q is playing for a strictly limited season at Melbourne’s Her Majesty’s Theatre and Ross Hannaford hopes audiences will embrace this latest production.

“It’s been a dream of mine to be part of this show forever. I just keep pinching myself and Her Majesty’s is so beautiful and the cast are lovely and we’re having such a great time! I just hope everyone comes along for a laugh. It’s such a great piece of theatre and it deserves to be seen.”

Avenue Q is playing until Sunday 14th August at Her Majesty’s Theatre, in Melbourne’s East End Theatre District.

For tickets: http://premier.ticketek.com.au/shows/show.aspx?sh=AVENUEQ16