Princeton (charmingly puppeteered by Chris Tomlinson) is a bright-eyed and optimistic college graduate, pondering what to do with himself after the company for whom he has just moved to New York City suddenly “downsizes”. Unemployment turns out to be only one of a multitude of problems facing the newcomer, as he searches for love, work, and his all-elusive Purpose In Life.
The first thing that will strike anyone who grew up going goggle-eyed in front of the TV is the backdrop’s authentic nod to Sesame Street. Like the classic children’s series, it depicts an urban working-class area full of vibrant critters and people living side by side, singing songs and offering life lessons; unlike Sesame Street, however, it is lewd, smutty, and rather more representative of the real world. A selection of song titles – “It Sucks To Be Me”, “I’m Not Wearing Underwear Today”, “Everyone’s A Little Bit Racist” – ought to give an indication of the show’s moral tendencies.
The two outstanding vocal performances in the show are those of Stephy Hay (as Kate Monster) and Claire Lockwood (as the unsubtly named Lucy The Slut). These two occupy opposite ends of the character spectrum, but are united in their superb vocal range and quality, and the dynamism of their facial expressions and movements around the stage. The actors adopt the broad New Yorker accents of the original Broadway show, with the exception of Judith Gardner-Jones, whose slightly inconsistent lallations self-consciously signal her role as a Japanese stereotype. In spite of its American origins, the humour seldom goes overhead – in fact, the biggest laugh of the night was in response to a joke at the expense of Republicans.
Meanwhile, the distinctly tall, white and female Kirsty McLaren puts in an excellent array of moody putdowns and sassy wisecracks as Gary Coleman, whilst the clearly lampooning Trekkie Monster (played with gruesome relish by Marcus Wylie) is delightfully perverted. The latter is responsible for leading the show’s most famous song export “The Internet Is For Porn”, whilst further debauchery follows soon after with “(You Can Be) Loud As The Hell You Want”, complete with startlingly vigorous puppet sex silhouetted against a duvet sheet.
Particular credit must be given to the crew; Rita Henderson’s stage direction and choreography is beautifully realised, and perfected to a tee by the cast and stagehands. The house band, led by Ian Strachan, not only play the showstoppers with vivacious energy, and the rarer slow ballads, but also execute the incidental sound effects flawlessly. The set design is excellent and inventive – one particular trick involving a pile of garbage was truly inspired. Also worthy of praise are the prop builders and lighting technicians, and the creators of the short video segments that appear on two large screens above the stage to link certain scenes.
If I must find fault with this production, it’s that the pacing of events in the non-lyrical sections seems sometimes rushed, and the story away from the musical numbers runs a little thin. But nobody comes to a musical for the in-between parts, and the things that matter – the songs and the laughs – do their duties big time. By the final curtain my face ached from grinning, and my hands were numb from the applause I had dealt. Avenue Q is an experience quite unlike anything else in conventional theatre – go and see it, but remember to bring loose change for “The Money Song”!