Release Date: Monday 16th July - Saturday 21st July 2011
Cast: Matthew J Henry, Katharine Moraz, Daniella Gibb, Edward Judge, Chris Thatcher, Sam Lupton, Julie Yammanee.
Director: Jason Moore
Writer: Jeff Whitty (Book), Robert Lopez & Jeff Marx (Concept & Music)
Running Time: 135 minutes
Theatre: The Grand Leeds
Princeton is the latest arrival on Avenue Q, a shabby terrace on the outer boroughs of New York. Newly graduated with a useless degree in English, he quickly realises how ill-equipped he is to cope in a world outside of college. As Princeton meets his neighbours on Avenue Q, he begins to release he has more to learn than he ever imagined.
Essentially a coming-of-age comedy musical, Avenue Q’s great distinction lies in its use of puppet characters. Featuring figures inspired by The Muppets and Sesame Street, the show tackles grown-up issues in the cheerful, optimistic style of those famous Seventies shows. Avenue Q isn’t a vulgar parody of those old shows, but rather a respectful homage to puppet productions with a satirically adult twist and wholesome message about the struggles of growing up. But more of that later. The puppets characters themselves are the stars of this production, and each are operated by slightly different means. Some are articulated by two performers, others alone with rods. The important element is that the puppeteer is clearly on stage with the puppet at all times, singing and vocalising the words for their characters. It could be seen as a shared stage with two competing performers, though it is almost always the puppet which draws your eye. The quality of the craftsmanship in the furry characters is of world class quality, and plaudits must be paid to Rick Lyon’s innovate design work and Nigel Plaskitt’s expressive puppet coaching, fortifying the fuzzy figures with a real personality all of their own.
Sam Lupton and Katharine Moraz vocalise and puppet the two leads, Princeton and Kate Monster, showing the cultivation of a romance which is shattered but eventually reformed. Lupton and Moraz have excellent singing voices which propel Avenue Q to the levels of seriously excellent musical theatre, with moments of genuine poignancy and emotion. There is of course a great deal of comedy in the play and this is provided by the entire cast, however some characters stand out among the crowd. Chris Thatcher’s Trekkie Monster – a huge, amorous beast – steals the few scenes he appears in, bursting through windows and lurching across the stage. Equally the Bad Idea Bears, although fleeting, are highly memorable as insurgents of alcoholism and promiscuity in an irresistibly sinister twist on The Care Bears.
The puppet characters are also accompanied by three human characters, giving the show a distinctly Sesame Street edge thanks to the sincere interaction between actor and puppet. Matthew J Henry delivers a dominating performance as Gary “Diff’rent Strokes” Coleman, with an aggression and wisdom which is bound to delight all who remember Coleman’s catchphrases from the 1980s. Julie Yammanee also appears as the fully human Christmas Eve, the shrill Japanese wife to Edward Judge’s Brian, who is the typical nice-guy-next-door. The careful balance of human to puppet performance in Avenue Q has been carefully honed, and succeeds perfectly, in not only creating a puppet world, but also firming it up with a verisimilitude provided by fully human characters who unquestionably relate to the puppets as real characters.
There are over a dozen songs squeezed into Avenue Q, with edgy and cheeky numbers such as ‘The Internet is for Porn’, ‘Everyone is a Little Bit Racist’ and ‘If You Were Gay’ getting huge laughs from the audience. Other pieces which resonate long after the final curtain are the wonderfully observant ‘Schadenfreude’, the touchingly melodic ‘It Sucks to Be Me’ and the enchanting ‘For Now’, which closes the show on the resolution that there is no perfect life in a world that is ever changing. All there is, is the now. For a show that at one point depicts puppets in manic coitus, it’s remarkable to think there is also a layer of philosophy sewn into the show for added value.
The play succeeds due to so many perfectly combined factors; from innovative set design to perfectly arranged musical numbers and beautiful lighting. The story is intelligent, perceptively funny and lightly moralising. The writing is cutting-edge, yet deals with universally recognisable issues. The direction is tight, the cast are peerlessly multitalented, and most importantly show has a heart. Furry, funny and occasionally filthy, Avenue Q is quite unlike any other musical you’re ever likely to see, and is quite possibly one of the most engaging new musicals of its time.
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