Oh, to be a kid again. Sure, we didn’t know very much, but we could at least rely on colourful TV shows like Sesame Street to keep us entertained and teach us the basics, like letters, numbers and right from wrong. But then you grow up, and life isn’t quite as simple anymore. All that wide-eyed innocence and squeaky-clean potential is replaced by overdue bills and dead end jobs, and even though you know little more of the big, wide world than you did as a toddler, you’re expected to go it alone, sink or swim, despite all the perils and pitfalls of adulthood.
But what if those educational kids’ TV shows were also made for grown ups?
Instead of a grumpy green monster in a trash can teaching us the value of tolerance, you might have a big hairy monster to teach us that looking at porn on the internet is nothing to be ashamed of. Instead of a giant yellow bird showing us the value of curiosity, you might have a closeted gay Republican to teach us the importance of being true to ourselves. And just imagine if Gary Coleman could teach you some useful German compound- adjectives. This irreverent fusion of adult issues and childlike whimsy is the brilliant premise behind Avenue Q, one of the most successful new musicals of the 21st-century.
From it’s humble off-Broadway start in 2003, this show’s cast of foul-mouthed but golden-hearted puppets have charmed their way around the world, picking up a slew of prestigious gongs along the way, including the ultimate Tony Award trifecta: Best Musical, Best Original Score and Best Book.
Written by Robert Lopez and Jeff Marx, with book by Jeff Whitty, Avenue Q’s hilarious, crass, witty lyrics and glut of earworms, cut through with an irresistible, satirised nostalgia and make it a treasure trove for a director, but it’s a deceptively challenging show from a technical perspective.
You need a cast that can deliver superb character performances, are comfortable multitasking across multiple roles (not to mention multiple puppets), and can also turn out great vocals. This hidden complexity provides many opportunities for misfires, but this new Australian production, directed by Peter J Snee, hits the bullseye dead centre.
The cast are frankly astonishing, and a wonderful credit to the abundance of young talent currently gracing Australia’s musical theatre scene. It’s unfair to play favourites with such a unanimously accomplished opening night, but Ross Hannaford and Sophie Wright both have excellent comic instinct as well as a touching sincerity that they infuse into their humour to make their performances soar.
This is, however, rather a minor concern when the action on stage is so top notch, and after all, Avenue Q’s story of insolvent but feisty battlers, staying upbeat and optimistic in our modern world of debt and drudgery is the perfect metaphor for arts presenters pulling off high calibre productions with shoe-string resources.