It takes some chutzpah to present the Fringe premiere of a West End musical that played 2000 performances over five years and across three theatres, and only closed less than three years ago. Even more so when the show is highly ‘proppy’, technically and vocally challenging like no other. Ovation has secured something of a coup in getting hold of the rights to ‘Avenue Q’, which was both a popular and cult smash hit.
‘Avenue Q’ features some eleven puppet characters and three human characters. Of the eleven, three are designated Monsters, which is a cue for some ‘monstrous’ prejudice and a jolly ensemble number “Everyone’s a Little Bit Racist’. The interactions are enormously complex; actors are required to be physical puppeteers, sometimes voicing different puppets from the ones they manipulate, and occasionally even singing more than one voice in the same song. Multi-tasking in this way to the level of precision, timing and energy required by a Broadway show must be one of the toughest challenges an actor could face. Everyone here rises to the challenge magnificently.
‘Avenue Q’, like ‘The Book of Mormon’ which shares in Robert Lopez the same composer/lyricist, has a reputation for being outrageously satirical. However, also like ‘Mormon’, it is a lot more mainstream and conventional than it would like to believe (and none the worse for that). Despite its innovative staging and nods to Naughtiness (‘The Internet is for Porn’, a hilarious puppet sex scene), it belongs to the ‘celebration-of-community’ tradition of which the apogee is perhaps ‘Oklahoma!’.
Avenue Q is a run-down street so far off the trendy Manhattan radar that rents are almost affordable. A newcomer, Princeton, is inducted into the street, meets neighbours including failed therapist Christmas Eve and her husband Brian, and closet gay room-mates Nicky and Rod. He falls in love with Kate Monster, blows it through an affair with Lucy the Slut, but redeems himself by making Kate’s dream of a School for Monsters come true.
Like all great musicals, ‘Avenue Q’ has some grit at its heart, and the grit is the downside of the American Dream. Everyone is brought up to believe that they are special, and all it takes to achieve success is to find their Purpose in Life. Slapped in the face by reality, however, they find that most people aren’t special, they have no purpose in life, jobs are thin on the ground and it’s easy to end out on your ear living on the streets. This is a post-9/11, post-recession musical; its concluding optimism is provisional and hard won: “Accept the things we can’t avoid, but only for now.” Only the action tells us something different – Kate gets her school, Princeton gets Kate, the closet gays come out and find happiness, the evil Lucy is defeated, and the community uplifts and empowers.However, despite the underlying seriousness, everything on the surface is pure pleasure. The puppets are a joy – cute, funny and touching. There is more than a nod to The Muppets and Sesame Street, despite a rather stern disclaimer in the programme from the Jim Henson Workshop, who really ought to know the difference between homage and rip-off. The songs by Lopez and Jeff Marx are sharp, tuneful and beautifully crafted, the book by Jeff Whitty has an acute eye and ear for contemporary foible and the power of self-delusion. There’s not an ounce of fat on any of it.
Director John Plews, previously responsible for the Fringe Premiere of ‘Crazy For You’ at the same venue, has surpassed himself with a slick, fast-moving production, but prime credit has to go to puppet consultant Nigel Plaskitt. The cast perform as if they had been puppeteers since childhood.
In such an ensemble show, it is perhaps invidious to single out individuals, but special credit should go to those handling multiple characters, Josh Willmott, Leigh Lothian and Will Jennings. They differentiate vocally, physically and comically just fine. The whole is supported by a four-piece band in a reduced but effective orchestration by Stephen Oremus.
Those who saw ‘Avenue Q’ in the West End might wonder if ‘Fringe’ must inevitably mean ‘inferior’ or ‘cut-price’. They need have no such qualms. There are compromises, but nothing detrimental to the impact of the show; in fact, the increased intimacy of a little Upstairs Theatre is a bonus. Book quickly – this will sell out before you can say ‘Monster Hit’.