Wednesday, 22 October 2014

Avenue Q re-mount milks script for mirth

N.B. The review that follows is an updated redux of the original BLR review from the Summer 2013 ACT production. The company's current re-mount is now mid-way through a tour around BC. Commencing November 20 (to January 3rd), the troupe will be at ACT's Granville Island stage. The review below follows Tuesday's gig @ the Surrey Arts Centre (until Oct.25). Please check with to see when Avenue Q will come to a stage near you.

Overview : One could be forgiven for wondering whether Avenue Q is shorthand for Avenue Queer given the re-emergence of that word in the lexicon of contemporary sexual politics. Once highly out-of-favour and decidedly non-p.c., the renaissance of "queer" occurred at roughly the same time that Hawaii's whimsical rainbow logo was appropriated in earnest by the gay community. No more a rainshower tourist come-on, rainbows now have been copyright'd to folks who have a non-heterosexual orientation. So be it. Times change. 

When it was mounted in 2002, meanwhile, the musical Avenue Q may have stood symbolically for "quixotic" or "quirky" or, perhaps best, "quick-witted" : all of these qualities are omnipresent and effervescent for sure! in this idiosyncratic NYC neighbourhood. 

The characters we meet are knock-offs of 1970's Sesame Street-types. It's just they've morphed from hippies in Hush Puppies to Gen-Xers with krappy college degrees and superb existential angst living communally along Q's streetscape. Together they fret about jobs and bills and sex and social relations circa Y2K. And "they" here means both the flesh-&-blood actors themselves -and- the hand-held Jim Henson knock-off puppets attached to most of the actors. Sometimes you watch the actor, other times the puppet, often going cross-eyed watching both. It's a total hoot

To add to the fun, in this decade's update there's a wonderful new "learn this word" screen -- schadenfreude -- meaning we're all to have some fun and delight in others' misery (think of Vancouver joy at anything dyspeptic in Toronto whether Rob Ford, ice storms or Maple Leaf hockey). Between that bit of sniggery and the number "We're All A Little Bit Racist" -- well, the innocent stuff we and our kids enjoyed on S.S. or The Muppet Show way back in the day goes Poof! in a jiffy on Ave. Q.

The show kicks off with a 23-year-old named Princeton (Jeremy Crittenden) lamenting "What do you do with a B.A. in English?", which segues nicely into the company challenging one another with assertions "It sucks to be me" that ends with them all wondering "Is there anybody here it doesn't suck to be...?" 

First impressions : Tonight's Surrey performance played to a mix of white heads and variously-dyed middle-agers. It was obvious the sass of Q both delighted and "squeamed" the audience. The latter particularly during the number "You Can Be As Loud As The Hell You Want (When You're Makin' Love)" which featured the puppets Princeton and Kate Monster (Kayla Dunbar) having endless congress in more positions than even the Kama Sutra spells out. Tenement super Gary Coleman* (Evangelia Kambites) has the line that aces it: "If you're doing the nasty, don't act as if you're at the ballet." Half the crowd of some 200 roared, the other half seemed to twitch a bit self-consciously.

A decade back when Robert Lopez and Jeff Marx stitched together the music and the lyrics and Jeff Whitty did the storyline, "Sex and the City" still reigned despite the true reality t.v. of the 9-11 terrorist attacks just a year earlier. America was still looking for divertissement driven more by phantasy than by autogiography, thanks. Q answered that need nicely because of its hooks back to Muppetry and Sesame Street as well as the relative innocence, still, of young people living communally trying to both break out and break in -- break out of juvenile mind-traps and break in to careers and security and "purpose". "Gotta find my purpose, gotta find me !" Princeton wails.

Plotline look : For all its cleverness, the script is a bit of a time-piece. It is no longer quite as fresh as it might be though still scrappy and punchy, e.g. apparently no one thought to up-date Princeton's putting together a "mix-tape" for Kate Monster that features the Beatles' "I Am The Walrus" and "Yellow Submarine" and Celine Dionne's "My Heart Goes On" from Titanic instead of a thumb-drive with current Coldplay ballads or Adele's heart-throb stuff or Cinematic Orchestra's Patrick Watson doing "To Build A Home".

Then there's the still-in-the-closet homosexual Republican investment banker stereotype, um, Rod (also Crittenden). He's got the hots for roomy Nicky (Nick Fontaine). Rod tries to deny he's gay and even sings of a fictitious girlfriend named Alberta from faraway Vancouver as his cover. That pretend-girlfriend song schtick was doubtless trite and condescending back in 2002, but its lyrics are truly a clanger on the ear in 2014.

What about the kindergarten teacher (Jeny Cassady) known as -- wait for it! -- Mrs. Thistletwat. The over-the-top-ness of that name is just that -- was a decade back, too -- but not helped in the least when her classroom aide Kate Monster stresses the t-ness of the 3rd syllable emphatically each time she utters it same as Ms. Dunbar did, regrettably, in playing the same role in the 2013 show.

The wonderful Trekkie Monster character -- like Big Bird on bad acid -- played by Mr. Fontaine insists that the Internet has one primary purpose : "for porn". In Y2K that probably was a major purpose for newby computer users delighting in the medium's immediate at-hand possibilities. But an updated laugh-line could surely have been crafted. In 2014 when juvenile cyber-bullying leads to suicides and priests store whole caches of child-porn on their laptops, the "innocent" porno joke loses some of the comic titillation and tumescence it may have enjoyed in yesteryear.

Character take : Quibbles aside, Q is a marvel of flesh, felt and thrown-voices choreographed superbly by Director Peter Jorgensen who brags tongue-in-cheek he can now add "muppet porn" to his live theatre curriculum vitae.

Rick Lyon's puppets and their persona are wonderfully wrought and acted out by their puppeteers even as they have their own flesh characters to project, too. The Bad Idea Bear characters (Fontaine and Cassady) are a delight of comic mischief, hilarious without being stale-dated in the least. Their Bear impersonations and spot-on spontaneity are a highlight of the show. And the choreography between them when sharing the two animated hands of puppet character Nicky was step-perfect.

As the protagonist Princeton, Crittenden was well and capably cast -- he made his 3-D felt characters come vitally alive. Rod's head flopping on his therapist's lap was classic slapstick. Counterpart and occasional girl friend Kate Monster (Ms. Dunbar) has terrific pipes, no question, her powerful voice even more rounded and rich than a year back. For her part Selina Wong as the Japanese-American named Christmas Eve proved she was no slouch of a singer, either, particularly in her duet with Kate "The more you love someone / The more you wish him dead". 

Wannabe comic Brian (Andy Toth) was once again cast to feed a stereotype -- the fatman struggling to urge laughs out of his brain and his belly, first, then out of his buddies. His wedding day costume of red-high-top Converse shoes, knickers and a polka-dot yarmulke by designer Jessica Bayntun was truly a sight set against Christmas Eve's Delores del Rio neon flamenco get-up. Great visual fun.

Production values : As it did last year, memory of this show will take me back to previous-Jessie Award winner Marshall McMahen's striking tenement set -- a whimsical asymmetrical caricature of 1930's walk-ups in dirty reds and rust, like pop-up illustrations of skid road housing one might imagine from a kid's learn-to-read-book.  Musical Director Sean Bayntun led an able ensemble, his dance on the keyboards particularly earful on the Surrey stage. Jessica Bayntun's costumes were just right, enabling the Henson-esque puppets to steal the limelight for the most part.

Who gonna like : The key to Avenue Q's success for viewers will depend on the degree to which they are prepared to just play along with puppets as people and people as puppets singing and dancing out this catalogue of familiar (if-dated) neuroses on stage.#   In my view the ideal demographic to enjoy it would be the 14-45 set, though Boomers will also relate from their break-out / break-in years. WarGen viewers will have eyes and ears strained and tested a bit uneasily but nothing they can't handle. 

In 50 words or less... : I heard one elderly matron lean on her cane and cackle "Gosh that was funny!" at her pal while another I overheard puzzled to her hubby : "What was the kindergarten teacher's name again...?" In the end, when it's children's-dreamworld-meets-adult-reality -- Oz is Oz after all --probably any age can find something to relate to and have a heck of a laugh while doing so. 

* Coleman's character is based on the erstwhile t.v. child star of the show Diff'rent Strokes whose aura later in life dimmed to being a tenement manager in slummy NYC. His finest adult life moment, Kambites tells us, was when he sued his parents for ripping off his Strokes royalites, only for them to have to file for bankruptcy later. That little vignette sync's wonderfully with the overall tenor of Q and its characters.

# Here's how ACT describes the show in its media promotional materials. I could never improve upon it by tittle-or-jot so I simply reproduce it for readers for their benefit:

Warning : Full puppet nudity and other vulgarities will induce laughter. This is a puppet show. However this is not your kids' puppet show as it sneaks a peak at raucous sexual congress, failed childhood stardom, excessive drinking, moving in and out of a slummy neighbourhood, investing, mix-tapes, cute creatures doing bad things, singing boxes, getting laid off, finding your purpose, getting fired, getting rehired, ruvving someone but wanting to kirr them, exotic dancing, erotic dancing, exotic erotic dancing, homosexuality, racism, pornography, masturbation, interracial marriage, interspecies relationships (monsters and humans), roommates, coming out of the closet, coming out of your apartment, getting ahead in real life, going to college, pan-handling, wishing you were back in college, coming out of your shell, and recycling.


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