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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The reign of rebel rock

We Will Rock You

Brisbane Arts Theatre

June 2 – July 28

“We Will Rock You” is an ambitious show, especially for an independent theatre company. Yet, despite the accordingly variable talent levels on stage, Brisbane Arts Theatre’s production serves as a treat for classic-rock fans.

The Orwellian-esque dystopian rock musical, which is filled with about two dozen Queen songs, takes place 300 years into the future of earth, now named the iPlanet, controlled by Globalsoft leader Killer Queen (a fabulous Natalie Mead), where everyone dresses, thinks and acts the same, rock is unheard of and all musical instruments have been banned. Enter hero Galileo Figaro (William Toft), who just wants to break free and, after dreaming of a world with rock music, sprouts the lyrics of past songs without knowing their meaning or origin, including the first few lines of ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ (a device which adds much humour to Ben Elton’s tongue-in-cheek script, before becoming overdone).

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When the rebel is captured by the Killer Queen and her chief crony, Police Commander Kashoggi (Liam McDonnell) he meets the sassy, smartmouthed Scaramouche (Katie Rouston), another rebel thinker who won’t conform to Globalsoft’s ways so is mocked by her peers for just wanting somebody to love. After escaping, they team up with a rebel gang of Bohemians, including Brit (Mackenzie Kelly) and Oz (Row Blackshaw), who are searching for items they think will make a musical instrument.

It is a narrative of convenience to allow for inclusion of feature of some of Queen’s all time biggest hits because, as a jukebox musical, “We Will Rock You” is all about the music and while some members of the ensemble project a lacklustre lack of energy, there are a number of strengths from the lead performers.  William Toft brings an impressive vocal range to Gallileo’s songbook, rocking with bombastic sounds to the famous one-two-three beat of ‘We Will Rock You’, but also offering a soft, soulful touch in uplifting duet with Scaramouche, ‘You’re My Best Friend’. Row Blackshaw, too, is vocally very strong as Oz, but nobody else has the commanding stage presence of Killer Queen Natalie Mead, and not just due to her amazing costume pieces (costume design by Erin Tribble and Frankee Walker). She simply ignites the lyrics of the band’s first international hit, ‘Killer Queen’ with soaring vocals.

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Liam McDonnell gives his dialogue an appealing Riff-Raff-like sinister slink, but is underused in duet with Mead of the funky ‘Another One Bites the Dust’.  Mark Tuohy’s appearance as Buddy Holly, leader of the archeologically-clueless bohemians, whose literal interpretations muddle the mythology of the analogue past’s cherished artefacts, appears all too short. His wistfully reflective delivery of ‘These Are the Days’ equips the ballad with much melancholy, making the audience want to hear more of his smooth vocals.

“We Will Rock You” requires a big musical sound and in this regard the show generally delivers, although some sound issues affect the fluency of transitions. There are lighting lapses too, like missed spotlights and combining stage lighting with shine-out to audience during moments of musical emphasis which seems a little amateurish.

“We Will Rock You” has always been an audience favourite, since it opened in London’s West End in 2002 without critical acclaim. It’s certainly contrived and overlong, but still an enjoyable night out in either reminiscence of or introduction to the many beautifully crafted and unapologetically bombastic songs of the iconic four-piece hard rock band, even if the show has moved its setting to the USA and, accordingly, worship of Elvis rather than Queen lead singer and flamboyant showman Freddie Mercury as messiah. Indeed, as audience members clap, swap and sing along, it is clear that Queen’s kind of magic still reigns for many.