For a potentially lightweight musical, Avenue Q is riddled with serious messages, another of them being don’t despair, this isn’t all there is, and life will go on to get better. It certainly has for the team who created the show, with a 15-year run on Broadway and various productions playing all over the world.
What sort of musical would you go to see, if you’re not the sort of person who goes to see musicals?
That was one of the starting points that delivered Avenue Q, a delightfully naughty, sweary, adult musical played out by puppets singing clever songs about the joys and tribulations of real life.
Gleeful energy crackles throughout this show, with its cast of cute and furry puppet people trying to find jobs, money, and the more elusive love and a purpose for even existing while navigating racism and homophobia. On the way they discover the truism that being kind to others is the best way of being kind to yourself. In other words, it’s malleable, foam-mouthed millenniums having an existential crisis.
The brilliant staging melds the puppets and their superb human manipulators into one distinct and believable unit. Even when there are two humans to one puppet.
The story was written by Jeff Whitty with music and lyrics by Robert Lopez and Jeff Marx, and it premiered in New York in 2003. So it’s been a long time coming to South Africa, where the wide-eyed, massive-mouthed puppets created by Kosie Smit are worked and voiced by a local cast, under the sharp direction of Timothy le Roux.
The effective set has a clear stage in front where they sing, dance, vigorously fornicate and air their sorrows, while windows and doors in the terrace houses open to show the characters behind them. And what characters they are.
Chief among them is Princeton, newly graduated with a BA in English and no idea what to do with it. He wanders on to Avenue Q where he rents a room and gets to know the residents. The songs come thick and fast, with the sharp and bawdy lyrics driving the plot forward. The initially upbeat opening soon mellows into a welcome variety of tempos as the characters go through slumps and their pals rally round to pull them out of the angst again.
Ryan Flynn as Princeton and Ashleigh Harvey as Kate Monster, a lovelorn teaching assistant, have gorgeous voices that carry their songs beautifully. The lyrics are as smart and sassy as the dialogue, with Harvey singing a memorable and achingly true solo about the fine line between love and a waste of time. She also brings sex appeal and sass to Lucy, a slutty bar room singer, by the sinuous way she voices and moves the puckered-lip puppet.
The characters called Bad Idea Bears are a clever plot creation, popping up to suggest the dumb ideas that sound such enormous fun at the time, like getting drunk and getting laid hours before a crucial appointment. Yep, this is life as lived in our youth, for sure. If you’re not too long out of college yourself and still struggling to find your place in the world, these fresh and feisty puppets will be even more relatable, making your emotional highs feel higher and the lonely lows even lower.
Some humans cohabit among the puppets, including the likeable Yamikani Mahaka-Phiri as Gary Coleman. Coleman was a child star in the American comedy series Diff’rent Strokes who went on to sue his parents for misappropriating his money, fell into bankruptcy and died aged 42. The plot has revived him as the housing supervisor, but if you don’t get that reference, his jokes will be wasted on you.
Rebecca Hartle plays another of the humans, a Japanese therapist called Christmas Eve. She’s way too shrill, with many of her words and lyrics screeching above the average person’s audibility comprehension level.
The song titles in Avenue Q are a big hint as to whether this is going to be your cup of tea, with numbers like The Internet is For Porn and I’m Not Wearing Underwear Today. In fact if you’re a polite cup of tea person, best beware. Two people next to me failed to reappear after the interval. Perhaps the vivid puppet sex scene turned them off.
For a potentially lightweight musical, Avenue Q is riddled with serious messages, another of them being don’t despair, this isn’t all there is, and life will go on to get better. It certainly has for the team who created the show, with a 15-year run on Broadway and various productions playing all over the world. DM
Avenue Q runs at Montecasino Theatre until 15 July. Tickets from Computicket
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