Always right on Q

Avenue Q

Brisbane Arts Theatre

November 10 – December 22

Before there was “The Book of Mormon” the equally delightfully-offensive “Avenue Q” was wowing musical audiences with its witty combination of childlike whimsy and adult issues. The hilariously vulgar puppet show of sorts features similarly skilful lyrics in its balanced and catchy soundtrack, from the upbeat catchy sounds of ‘Everyone’s a Little Bit Racist’ to the sentimental reflections of ‘I Wish I Could Go Back to College’.

We first meet just-graduated with a B.A. in English, puppet Princeton, he is longing to find his purpose on Avenue Q, a fictional street in an outer-outer New York borough. His neighbours include a number of fun adult and puppet characters, from the sweet Kate Monster to the offensive, reclusive internet-obsessed Trekkie Monster (and no they are not related – you racist). As if living under the control of superintendent, Gary Coleman (Natalie Mead) isn’t enough, everyone is struggling with the challenges of life; slacker Nicky and his best friend, Republican investment banker fusspot Rod (who is totally not gay) are having Bert and Erniesque roommate issues, while Princeton’s romance of kindergarten teaching assistant Kate is shaken by skanky chanteuse Lucy the Slut and the temptations encouraged by a couple of bullying Bad Idea Bears.

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The foul-mouthed puppets are operated and voiced by neutrally dressed puppeteers, who are always in full view of the audience, mingling with three human actors. However, the strength of the puppet characterisation and the complexity of their unobtrusive operation mean that the audience quickly forgets about their operators. The cast delivers superb character performances, clearly comfortable multitasking across multiple roles (and multiple puppets). Joshua Moore is particularly effective in his animation of the Ernie-esque Nicky and Cookie-Monster-type Trekkie.

The three ‘human’ characters Christmas Eve (Jordan Boyd), Brian (Matt Shield) and Gary Coleman (Natalie Mead) integrate and interact with the puppets with ease. Mead, in particular, nails the sarcasm of her Gary Coleman both vocally and physically. William Toft and Kate Routson are lovely together as protagonist couple Princeton and Kate Monster. Routson’s sweet and tender vocals suit the pure sunshine of her idealistic puppet character and her Act One closer, ‘There’s a Fine, Fine Line’, in which she responds to commitment-phobic Princeton’s panic with a vow to no more waste her time, serves as a wonderful illustration of this

As with its format, the show’s colourful staging serves as a tribute to familiar children’s shows with a Sesame Street sidewalk of exposed brick New York terraces, however, familiarity with the homage is not essential to the entertainment value of the show. Similarly, dated jokes of a time when the internet was only on desktops and Gary What-you-talking-about-Willis Coleman was still alive still come across as funny. Clever and quirky details also add visual interest throughout, while some details (cue extended, energised puppet sex scene) can never be unseen.

Despite its raunchy hilarity, from its magical opening number, there is a warmth and humour to “Avenue Q”. And it seems that it’s a combination that right up Brisbane’s street, with the loveable furry friends making their fifth and final (for now) outing as one of Brisbane Arts Theatre’s biggest hits. As winner of the ultimate Tony Award trifecta of Best Musical, Best Original Score and Best Book, the irreverent show is a clever and engaging must-seem perfect for the whole family… if you are okay with your kids seeing full puppet nudity, hearing naughty words and witnessing a furry sex scene. See what the fuzz is all about again until December 22.

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Right on Q

Avenue Q

Brisbane Arts Theatre

October 17 – December 19

Avenue Q. You’ve probably heard of it; it’s adults only puppetry, ‘like Sesame Street on crack’. And the parallels are clear from the moment the show begins with a multicultural mix of neighbouring characters: live actors, puppets, monsters and someone in role as former child actor Gary Coleman (Natalie Mead) joined on the street stage, surrounded by mail boxes and fire-hydrants, ready to sing.

Once the lyrics begin, it becomes clear that despite the imitation iconography, this is clearly not a street upon which everything is A-Ok, as characters share lament in ‘It Sucks to Be Me”. Brian (Thom Gregg) is broke and unemployed and Kate Monster (Lara Boyle) is pretty and smart, but single. Enter puppet protagonist Princeton (William Toft), wondering what he’s going to do with a B.A. in English and love soon blossoms for Kate, despite attempted intervention by busty pole-dancing puppet Lucy The Slut (Lauren Ashlea Fraser). With the Bad Idea Bears (most notably Connor Clarke) trying to influence events to follow their ‘more drinks, more fun’ mantra, who knows if the puppet/monster mixed race romance will survive, especially as Princeton becomes more focussed on finding his purpose?

Relationship uncertainty is also apparent with Bert and Ernie-esque housemates, the well-groomed, obsessive, uptight and slightly hysterical closeted Rod (Gary Farmer) and his former College roommate and best friend Nicky (Trent Richards), leading to Act One’s memorable ‘If You Were Gay’. Clearly “Avenue Q” is like “The Book of Mormon” in that it thrives on the initial shock value of its content, in particular its skilfully written lyrics. And while it loses momentum a little in Act Two, its mix of upbeat catchy songs such as ‘Everyone’s a Little Bit Racist’ and sentimental reflections like ‘I Wish I Could Go Back to College’, make for a balanced soundtrack. And it isn’t all mockery, with ‘The Money Song’ making message of how when you help others, you can’t help helping yourself (if you ignore Gary Coleman’s gun). Indeed, the merit of the show’s three Tony Awards, including Best Musical, when it opened on Broadway in 2003, is evident and judging by the plentiful and appreciative audience, it is easy to see why Brisbane Arts Theatre has brought it back as part of their 2015 program.

Performers showcase various levels of talent, particularly vocally and initially music overplays some singing, but there are standouts, particularly amongst the primary puppeteers who make their characters relatable and forgivable, despite their other-worldliness. Toft does a commendable job as Princeton, however, it is Richards who conveys the most commanding presence both through and behind the puppets, dominating the stage in every instance, particularly as perverted Trekkie Monster making addiction admission in ‘The Internet is for Porn’.

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The show offers a puppet cast of all shapes and sizes, including cameos from some familiar felt and furry favourites. It is a shame, however, that audience members seated in the balcony are unable to see the appearances of those most atop the stage. The choreography is engaging and staging, although always active and busy, is effective, allowing for subtle transitions of puppeteers to capitalise upon Richard’s characterisation talents, Everyone is visible, and although eyes may wander back and forth between puppet and human, it is of credit that, like in the recent “Thank You for Being A Friend”, it is not long into the two act musical before handlers are almost forgotten and audiences are focussed on the inanimate stars.

Offensive in its racist caricatures, say-it-as-it-is songs and puppet-on-monster sex scene montage, “Avenue Q” is as hilarious as it might be disturbing. Audience members who figure that inappropriate humour is often the best kind, will surely find this show right on Q and have at least one probably insensitive song on repeat in their head as depart ready to rave to friends to get themselves along to the lively, witty and mischievous work.