Joanna Ampil, Julie Atherton, Edward Baruwa, Daniel Boys, Christopher Fry, Mark Goldthorp, Rachel Jerram
“When Kermit the Frog starts singing, no one turns off to it as they do to, say, Barbra Streisand nowadays.”
That was the observation that led Jeff Marx and Robert Lopez to use Sesame Street-style puppets to create their ‘musical for people who don’t like musicals!’
Avenue Q opened off-Broadway in 2003, and has been running at the Noel Coward Theatre since 2006.
Recently one of the original London cast members, Julie Atherton, returned to the show and it has just undergone one final cast change, introducing Daniel Boys who appeared on BBC One’s Any Dream Will Do, before its scheduled closure next March.
Set in a street in a poor part of New York, it witnesses the comings and goings of the resident puppets, who have typically left university with high hopes and a BA in English, before losing their way and ending up penniless. With every song covering a theme such as racism, internet porn or coming out of the closet, the musical explores issues that are relevant to many of us in a light-hearted way. The over-riding message is that no matter how bad things may seem at the moment, they will turn out all right.
The main strength of the production is the exquisite attention to detail. Most puppets are operated by an actor with one hand inside their body moving their mouth, and the other controlling their arm with a stick. This imbues the puppets with much flexibility in their movement, and each of their gestures and facial expressions is mirrored by their handlers.
We see the puppets getting up to all sort of antics, such as sliding down a row of (singing) cardboard boxes, whilst there are also subtle allusions to other works. Kate Monster’s proposal to meet Princeton at the top of the Empire State Building as a test of his love recalls the classic film, An Affair to Remember, whilst Gary Coleman’s presence on Avenue Q, his glory days behind him, emulates the ageing Casanova’s lingering on in Tennessee Williams’ Camino Real.
Amongst the many good performances, particular accolades must go to Julie Atherton as both Kate Monster and Lucy the Slut whose voice and mannerisms perfectly captured what we would expect from children’s puppets. Equally strong was the singing and dancing of Edward Baruwa as Gary, one of three humans (as opposed to humans operating puppets) on the street.
Despite these excellent performances the show itself felt oddly insubstantial. There were three main plots: the first concerned arts graduate Princeton and his search for his purpose in life; the second saw Princeton and Kate Monster searching for love, and the third main strand involved Republican Rod’s coming to terms with being gay. In the first half, however, the use of each scene to explore a specific issue, via a song, stifled the narrative and things only really got going in the second half.
Similarly, though the songs were funny, the music was nothing special, and though there wasn’t a dearth of jokes, they didn’t exactly roll thick and fast, line after line. For example, the song The Internet is for Porn contained a basic tune and unimaginative lyrics, with only a few individual lines really tickling the ribs.
Because most people are by now aware that Avenue Q contains puppets swearing and having sex, witnessing this on the night was only mildly amusing and not shocking at all, the element of surprise lost. Despite exploring adult issues, the show never did so on more than a superficial level, and it consequently lacked gravity. True, Avenue Q is supposed to be a feel-good show, but had it presented its audiences with more hard-hitting portrayals of poverty and loneliness, this might have led to a more emotive experience and made the ultimate triumph of good all the more uplifting.
I dare say, however, that a more hard-hitting show would not have held the same mass appeal, and the musical has certainly not sustained itself for so long on nothing. So, if you are searching for fun, or have simply been meaning to see it for the past three years, you have until March to experience Avenue Q.