Avenue Q is probably one of the most outrageous of modern musicals, earning itself pride and praise alongside other risqué and brilliant ventures such as The Book of Mormon and Jerry Springer: The Opera. Five years after a spectacular run in the West End following on from its New York and Tony “Triple Crown” (Best Book, Best Musical, and Best Score), it returns to UK shores in this touring production by Sell A Door, landing in Greenwich for a brief period as its first stop.
Book and Songs
Book writer Jeff Whitty has his sights set to kill, with the nostalgia of innocence surrounding our memories of Sesame Street and other such shows right in his line of vision. Essentially, the musical asks, “what happens when puppets grow up?” The answer is they drink, they swear, and they fuck, with as much aplomb as us of non-felt origin do. Yet Whitty’s genius is that despite the very adult situations these fuzzy friends find themselves in, there’s still a definite air of children’s TV’s charm. It’s a devastating wit that drives the show, with the juxtaposition of explicit scenes and offence against a puppy-eyed Jackanory demeanour causing laughs and surprises that constantly come thick and fast.
Robert Lopez and Jeff Marx supply an anthology of songs that complement Whitty’s vision to a T. Whether it’s a jolly ditty about how, “Everyone’s a Little Bit Racist”, to explaining the joys of, “Schadenfreude” and how, “The Internet is for Porn”, all are smart, slick, and tuneful. But most importantly, they’re incredibly catchy and so easy to pick up. If you still have enough wind left in you from all the laughter you’ll be singing them out loud for days to come (but perhaps not in the office).
Being a touring production, those who managed to catch the show during its West End residency, will notice that the set is much smaller and not as polished. But this doesn’t really matter as it’s Cressida Carré’s direction of the talented cast that shines through, making the set just a means to an end. Carré ensures that there’s plenty of energy throughout the show, letting the brilliant book, lyrics, and songs do the talking through an excellent cast. It’s noticeably pared down by way of staging, but the creative team make sure that not one ounce of the show itself suffers.
At the beginning, the fact that the cast controlling puppets are clearly visible is a bit of a distraction. As the puppets themselves are only formed from the waist up, it’s a little difficult to suspend your disbelief at first. But then something magical happens. You stop noticing the actors altogether.
Tom Steedon, playing Princetown and Rod, breathes excellent life into his to characters. Even if you just can’t see the puppets without seeing him at the same time, his larger than life facial expressions and the charismatic sass in his physicality make him a joy to watch. However, his leading partner, Lucie-Mae Sumner, playing Kate and Lucy the Slut, manages to do something quite magical. At points she and puppet meld as one, with both her and felt counterpart behaving in unity, complementing each other. Add that to her impeccable comic timing, and a wonderfully smooth and clear voice, she steals the show.
The rest of the cast, both puppeteers and non-puppet wielding ones also match Sumner’s and Steedon’s energy, pace, and comedy, working brilliantly as an ensemble. All revel in the humour and unabashed joy of the musical itself, and it shows.
It’s great to see that despite it being a touring version, it seems that nothing has been lost from the standard of the original West End production. Having personally seen it before, I’d actually wager that it’s a little better, especially as some of the scenes seem to be played even more gloriously over the top than before.
Whether you caught it the first time around, or have still to pop your puppet cherry, it’s a hoot. First timers can expect to have their funny bones broken, let alone tickled, and for those returning to the show will delight in just how high the standard of this production is. They’ll also be reminded of just how tight and well written the rest of the show is outside of the songs and moments people tend to remember the most.
The only criticism is that it doesn’t feel as fresh anymore. With the original off-Broadway production pipping Team America to the post by a single year, sending up childhood staples in a humorous and X-rated haze has become more common place over the past decade. Therefore, this not as shocking as it was when the show was in its prime.
But overall, Avenue Q is as vulgar, foul mouthed, and outlandish as it ever was. You’d be a muppet to miss it!
Avenue Q runs at the Greenwich Theatre, London, until 11 May 2014. Tickets are £17-£25 (concessions available). To book, visit www.greenwichtheatre.org.uk. For more information about the show, and other touring dates, visit http://avenuequk.com.