FringeReview UK 2019
Robert Lopez and Jeff Marx’s Avenue Q with book by Jeff Whitty and Stephen Oreamus’ orchestral arrangements. It’s directed and choreographed by Cressida Carré, designed by Ricahrd Evans, lit by Charlie Morgan Jones with a sound design by Chris Bogg and puppets by Paul Jomain. with Samantha Murphy’s costume designs. Musical supervision’s by Mark Crossland and it’s musically directed by Dean McDermott. Till June 8th.
When Robert Lopez and Jeff Marx flummoxed about in the late 90s, fresh out of college, they dreamed big – fur: Hamlet as a Muppet. After several pitches they got Jeff Whitty to write for the book for Avenue Q. Since it opened in 2004, it’s hardly ever been away.
And they’re back at the Theatre Royal, Brighton for a production that’s more punchy, more vividly lit, and much clearer (that’s vital, those screeches!) than before. If you’re like everyone ‘a little bit racist’ as one song claims, you can sing along making sense of it, and then there’s Porn. Stephen Oreamus’ orchestral arrangements combine lucidity with character, even occasional delicacy.
With Paul Jomain’s puppets this isn’t the Muppet Shoe or Sesame Street though it pays unalloyed homage to furriness, even cuteness. It’s just that when Princeton boy meets Kate girl the graphic sex-bingeing of their first-night date together is charmingly brought to life with flailing puppets on a table bed, whilst the human puppeteers look cute. The great idea is to make these puppets so characterful you forget the humans visibly manipulating them. I’m afraid I was too taken with one or two humans and their voices for that to work entirely, but I get it, and the synch’s great fun.
It’s directed and choreographed by Cressida Carré, designed by Richard Evans as a neat set of brownstone puppety houses with a toy-feel matt sheen, plus monitors lighting up with keywords, lit by Charlie Morgan Jones with great attention to brightening up sills and other edges, a classy clean design in a potential smudge area.
Mostly clear sound design’s by Chris Bogg with those memorable puppets by Paul Jomain. Together with Samantha Murphy’s primary coloured costumes – much purple, virid green, royal blue, custard yellow and postbox red: they make a vivid feel-good monster-ish impression. Musical supervision’s by Mark Crossland and it’s musically directed by Dean McDermott.
So what is it with Avenue Q and those monsters? Why is Princeton just Princeton (he’s also the fine Lawrence Smith, and doubles as gay-in-denial Rod) and Kate Monster Kate Monster (Cecily Redman, also Lucy the Slut)? So she’s kinned with Tom Steedon’s Waldorf-Muppet-soundalike Trekkie Monster (he’s also gay Nicky who gets into trouble prising Rod out of his closet)? It’s not ethnicity, sexuality or difference exactly though that’s what it signals: a kind of ideal, even a perverted one, someone with a mission – something Princeton’s looking for ‘purpose’. Either way it proves pivotal in the end.
Smith arriving with his appealing tenor and ‘What Do You do With a BA in English?’ – as if he’d not contemplated it till now – is on a mission to discover his purpose; though what Avenue Q teaches us is it’s not true that everybody has a particular talent that makes that easier. Sometimes an ideal helps, and when he bumps into Kate Monster a kindergarten school teacher who really wants to open a school for monsters, he’s both distracted by warm attractive Kate (who thinks he’s a girl magnet) and even more clear that she ahs an aim, he does not. They get together (wild sex with puppets) despite that other puppet Lucy the Slut with her smoky voice, who’s also there when Princeton wants space (‘purpose’ morphs to ‘propose’ on the screen monitors and he’s reached a commitment moment) and Kate throws him over.
Then Lucy does, not before disposing of Kate’s note she was meant to convey – oops, since stood-up Kate then tosses down her lucky coin from Princeton, of the Empire state and it lands on Lucy’s head (cue Emergency signs and monitors) but of course no-one dies, they just change a bit. Serves her right for asking ‘are there any scratch makes on my back?’ and Kate saying ‘yes, they spell ‘help!’
All this seems pretty daffy. If your ex is seeing slutty lucy who boasts of sex, would you really ask her to convey a note which is basically a 2.0 attempt? But Princeton’s jilting Kate is equally flimsy, and none fo it to be taken too seriously – except the singing, despite its goofy high registers, demands something more.
Cue ‘There’s a Fine, Fine Line’ where Redman can sing in her unalloyed soprano. She’s one of the reasons to love this show. Her range, her capacity to encompass characters with such lyricism and yet lucidity at odd upper reaches is winning.
Smith too is lyrically preppy if you can be, and a fine foil for Redman. He carries quite a few song burdens apart from ‘Purpose’ and ‘I Wish I Could Go Back to College where he’s joined – as happens mostly – by the ensemble. As Nicky he ascends vocally for such numbers as ‘My Girlfriend, Who Lives in Canada’ referencing explicit sex as another off-white lie.
Another storyline has Smith as in-denial Rod, who throws out Steedon’s rather clingy Nicky. Steedon has a baritonal range and then some, plunging down to the refrains in ‘The Internet Is For Porn’ when playing Trekkie Monster the reclusive cynic upstairs. There’s sharply-defined tough-tender support from Saori Oda’s Japanese Christmas Eve who marries failed comic stand-up Brian (Oliver Stanley) whose goofy ‘I’m Not Wearing Underwear Today’ tells you why he should give it up for marital bliss. Megan Armstrong gives fine support as Mrs T, and other Bear roles – none of which profile her enough.
The other great stand-out is the once-famous child star Gary Coleman who’s in fact the landlord. It’s how he lives now, and Nicholas McLean’s voice is another glory of the production. There’s a touch of Sportin’ Life in his ‘There Is Life Outside Your Apartment’ and ‘Schadenfreude’.
So you can imagine what happens to Princeton and Kate, Rod and Nicky, Christmas Eve and Brian. Well almost, that preppy guy looking for a purpose stops handing out dollars and pleading for them even off destitute Nicky, since – Kate’s Monster School, his eureka moment, caries the liberal message of finding yourself in helping others. What’s not to like? It’s as good as it can be, a first-rate revival, and a couple of voices to make you want to feel the fur and peep at the singer anyway.