at Milton Keynes Theatre, Saturday 23rd April 2011
Everyone loves a bit of convention subversion. If artists didn’t try to break tradition, we wouldn’t have been given the Guernica or A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. Avenue Q is the first musical I’ve seen in a long time to break away from conventions – specifically those of humans representing characters and the themes that can and can’t be tackled in a musical – but there’s a constant longing for this boundry-breaking to go further.
Now touring the country after spending five years on the West End, Robert Lopez and Jeff Marx’ musical is set in a Sesame Street-style neighbourhood, with puppets for lodgers and television screens explaining certain concepts to us (“come-mittment” being a favourite). Princeton has just arrived on Avenue Q, trying to find a purpose in life and finding love along the way in the guise of Kate Monster. Rod has to confront his homosexuality and Trekkie Monster has his mind on only one thing. Throughout, their attention is diverted by Lucy the Slut and the Bad Idea Bears. Actors manipulate the puppets, who interact with other puppets and a few humans. It all seems to be so cuddly and sweet.
Until they open their mouths. And here’s where the genius of the show lies; listening to puppets speak atrocities and perform unspeakable acts in a musical defies all that we expect when settling down in our seats, and whimsical songs telling us “The Internet is for Porn” are far from the norm. It’s just a shame this doesn’t continue.
Because although the lyrics sung are hilarious, and Jeff Whitty’s script is downright crude, the structure of the musical does nothing to subvert expectations. The songs are written in the same sung-like-spoken fashion as many other frivolous musicals and the story ends with an upbeat anthem and chorus line. We long for some kind of tragedy to cement Avenue Q as a show which defies conventions, refusing to stick to the rule book. But it just falls short.
That said, the performances are all superb, and the actors who play the puppet characters do a sterling job of making us believe their alter egos are real. Understudying as Kate Monster, Katharine Moraz is extremely confident, showing true skill when switching to Lucy the Slut. Adam Pettigrew’s Princeton is truly loveable, and when he plays Rod there’s some real sincerity behind the words. Chris Thatcher is particularly strong as Rod’s flatmate Nicky and Trekkie Monster, being given some of the best songs in the show. Edward Judge, Matthew J Henry and Jacqueline Tate all offer solid support as the human inhabitants of Avenue Q.
Jason Moore’s polished direction shows a clear journey and some bold choices, such as Princeton’s “Propose” segment. All of Rick Lyon’s puppets have a life of their own and Anna Louizos’ set offers some exciting choices. It’s a shame more isn’t made of the ‘educational’ videos, which truly send up the genre and provide some erudite puns.
One of Avenue Q’s boldest moments is when it tells the audience that “Everyone’s a Little Bit Racist”. It’s an audacious move and one that raises some important questions, but this level of thinking isn’t continued into the second half, where the plot becomes simple fairytale. Some predictable moments and repetitive music mean that Avenue Q just stops short of being an extraordinary piece of work which changes the way we view musical theatre.