To complete my weekend of new (to me anyway) musicals, I thought I would opt for one that had been sitting on my Theatre Online list since more or less this time last year but for one reason or another I had never actually got round to watching. This was the legendary and even questionable Avenue Q. Legendary because when it first appeared it caused quite a consternation simply because it was like nothing ever seen before and then lasted 16 years on Broadway; questionable because it can be seen to perpetrate the very stereotypes and attitudes it purports to attack.
Essentially it takes the kid show format of Sesame Street and then turns the dial up to eleven and beyond with sex, swearing, un-PC themes and topical digs at politics, money, homelessness, the internet, gender roles, racism and … fill in the blanks yourself. The version available online comes from an interesting source, namely a 2017 production at Midvale Main Street Theatre in Utah – no , me neither. Turns out Midvale is a suburb of Salt Lake City the home of the Mormon religion which by one of those weird coincidences features in a later hit musical The Book Of Mormon co-written by one of the creators of Avenue Q, Robert Lopez (with Jeff Marx). Both musicals are satires and seem to set out to offend as many people as possible but as that whole area is a shifting dynamic it was with some wariness that I settled down to watch.
Not that the storyline matters that much, but young newcomer to the area, Princeton (B.A. in English) rents an apartment. He soon gets to know the other locals, an eclectic mix of puppets and humans. There’s Kate Monster who is a teaching assistant but wants to set up her own Monster School, the probably gay couple Nicky and Rod although the latter is in heavy denial and the grouchy Trekkie Monster who spends all day watching porn (these are the puppets if you’re in any doubt). The human inhabitants consist of erstwhile comedian Brian, his partner Christmas Eve and Gary Coleman (this last may be rather mystifying unless you remember an American sitcom called Diff’rent Strokes in which Coleman starred as a child actor). Between them they help and sometimes hinder Princeton to locate his purpose – something which he pursues with dogged determination despite setbacks, disappointments and an on-off relationship with Kate.
This linking material is really just an excuse to throw together a bunch of songs with provocative titles and lyrics such as “You Can Be As Loud As The Hell You Want (When You’re Makin’ Love)”, “If You Were Gay”, “The Internet Is For Porn” and “Everyone’s A Little Bit Racist”. This last song in particular can be read in several different ways and can be variously seen as a satire on racist views or an endorsement of complacency over such a stance…or any point in between, really. I think you’re supposed to feel uncomfortable but isn’t that rather a case of having one’s cake and eating it too? And the role of Christmas Eve only adds fuel to this particular fire. The character as written is specifically of Japanese heritage and therefore (hilariously??) heavy accented such that this key song comes out as “Ev’lyone’s a ritter bit lacist”. Awkward, very – and I couldn’t help wondering whether the audience were laughing with the situation and retrogressive views or at the character. The presentation of the female roles also leaves much to be desired with Kate being judged for her looks and one character being so unfortunately named that I’m not going to repeat it here. I had to keep reminding myself that I was watching through the lens of a world that has moved on since the piece premiered nearly twenty years ago (though this production is only four years old) but it treads a very fine line indeed.
As for the production itself it is slickly done. The twelve dressed in black performers are a talented group who not only deftly manipulate the puppets but give voice to the characters and perform the songs as well – there’s even some rudimentary dance moves. Christian Earl and Lauren Call make an appealing central couple and Jeremy Heaps and Jake T. Holt as Rod and Nicky (definitely channelling Sesame Street’s Bert and Ernie) provide some very funny moments as the on-off gay couple. The Trekkie Monster (Danny Eggers) seems somewhat underdeveloped – I can’t believe I just wrote that about a puppet! The human characters are less well realised than the mannequins but that, I assume, was always the intention – the Gary Coleman jokes fall particularly flat for a British audience.
Having never seen Avenue Q it was good to catch up with this particular show if only to see what the fuss was all about. It certainly raises many an issue and I can see that it might claim to have added to the debate which has changed perceptions over the last twenty years. However, I think if it was being staged again right now there would need to be some extremely detailed discussions about what could stay and what might need to be let go….Talking of which I was amazed to discover that writer Lopez is also partly responsible for that ubiquitous song from Frozen that is enough to drive anyone crazy. Now that really is something questionable.
Avenue Q is available on You Tube – click here
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