Thursday 24 November 2016

No trumpery : Q is spot-on sentimental timely fun 
All the basic condition theatre requires is that fire last night &
those costumes & the human voice & people gathered together.  
Sir Trevor Nunn, Director (Cats, 1981 \ Les Miserables, 1985)

From the footlights :  By now, 13 years after it first launched Off Broadway in New York, most folks know that Avenue Q is a comic and naughty musical take-off on Sesame Street-like Muppetry that is risque, irreverent and saucy. It was wildly popular during its 2013 & 2014 ACT runs and again during its ACT On Tour chautauqua in 2014.

The puppets are attached to the arms of their human characters -- the cloth made flesh, as it were. Given the parochial negativity awash up-&-down the land now that the White House has been rebranded Trump Tower, the question arises whether my earlier descriptor of the New York City district where Q happens will still magnetize : "The characters are Gen-Xers with krappy college degrees and superb existential angst living communally along Avenue Q's streetscape. Together they fret about jobs and bills and sex and social relations circa Y2K."

Millennials and their demands for designer gender pronouns (zie, xem etc.) are the current campus rage. Can the snuggly, gnarly puppets Princeton and Kate Monster gruntily fornicating to the tune "You Can Be As Loud As The Hell You Want (When You're Makin' Love)" have the same innocent laughability today? Specifically in an age insisted by many to be doomed because they say it is, universally, a Rape Culture? When tenement supervisor Gary Coleman (Katrina Reynolds) demands "If you're doin' the nasty, don't act as if you're at the ballet", will she get the same guffaws?

WYSIWYG :  Fact is it's the time of year when all of us folks are asked -- in the immortal words of Canada's poet minstrel Leonard Cohen -- "to put a paper cap on [our] concussion and dance!" Which is why Christmas pantomimes and remounts of such as Mary Poppins and It's A Wonderful Life almost never fail at the box office this time of year. People are desperate for re-runs of That's Entertainment-like shows to take their minds off Breitbart and Fox and Drudge.

So what's up. On Sesame Street back in the day there was a Learn This Word screen -- offering up, say, the word "delicious" for the little grommets to advance beyond just "Ummmm, good!"  The Avenue Q word screen, for its part, features the German psycho-mockery term schadenfreude : taking pleasure in the pain others suffer. Which is precisely what the Elephants in USA's political zoo feel toward the Donkeys they krapt on from a great height with deadly accuracy on November 8th.

The cheering, clapping crowd on opening night (in the 205th ACT performance of Q) proved that it is still possible to get a yuk out of the song "We're All A Little Bit Racist" despite the rampant xenophobia among the alt-right on this continent (while for their part the alt-left p.c.'ers are equally if oppositely stuck in their demands for unquestioning group-think).

What the show brings to the stage :  During the earlier mounts of the production, Director Peter Jorgensen bragged tongue-in-cheek how fun it was going to be to add "muppet porn" to his c.v. No doubt of its effect. Else why would ACT risk a fourth time out with Q in just three years? Once more Jorgensen did a terrific job blocking the troupe to keep the puppets front-&-centre considerably moreso than the actors. 

Because as noted in previous BLR reviews of Q, Rick Lyon's puppets and their persona are wonderfully wrought and acted out by their puppeteers. The Bad Idea Bears (Scott Bellis & Jeny Cassady) are a delight of hilarious comic mischief. 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 both puppet characters "But I'm not gay" Nicky and Trekkie Monster-the-Internet-porn-addict was simply step-perfect once again.

Production values that hi-lite the action : The impressionistic set by Marshall McMahen almost makes tenement living seem like a quite a delightful option. As noted last time out, the set seems like what a pop-up illustration of skid road housing one might expect to find in a suburban kid's learn-to-read book. Except for the jetsam & detritus littering the stage that make the scene more convincingly slummish.

Musical Director Sean Bayntun led another able ensemble, though last night's tunery seemed a bit muted compared to the chautauqua version of 2014. Still, sprightly good fun. Can't say enough about Jessica Bayntun's costumes : they let the puppets do the talking while the actors seem mostly to go along for the ride. 

Acting pin-spots : Andrew MacDonald-Smith as the perpetually horny hetero "Gotta find my purpose, gotta find myself !" English B.A. graduate named Princeton -- as well as his stereotypical in-the-closet gay (Republican, investment banker) Rod -- was a truly swell performer in both roles. His vocal breadth and dynamics are remarkable.

As the irascible Trekkie Monster and also as Rod's roommate Nicky, Scott Bellis revealed pipes and animation well under the age his grey hair would suggest him to be. Just marvellous. Unquestionably a Vancouver favourite character actor with vim and spunk and heart galore.

Strong, consistent performances from all of the women in the piece, with especially fun ironic verbal flourishes from newcomer Kimmie Choi as the Chinese-American character named Christmas Eve. 

Feckless, fat-&-lazy Brian (Chris Cochrane) the wannabe stand-up comic who married the character Christmas Eve was a delightful harmless neighbourhood goof. (A wedding yarmulke for him to match the puppets' skull-caps was oddly MIA.)

Who gonna like :  Puppets as people and people as puppets singing and dancing out their life neuroses on stage. Who gonna like ? Wrong question based on opening night. More like "What's not to like?" given the near-universal, standing-o response from an almost full house. Again, based on the numbers ON, the demographic that seems to fall out of its seat enjoying Avenue Q the most is the Millennial set, though X'ers and Boomers who recall their own couch-surfing and 4-to-a-room daze during their break-out years will also relate.

Of the four productions seen, without doubt this is the strongest, tightest, most consistenly entertaining. That Act 1 droops in pace and energy toward its end is not the cast's fault but the writers'. Instead of a rousing, robust and animated chorus (like the troupe in "You Can Be Loud As Hell"), the scene ends with a lachrymose ballad by the jilted Kate Monster (Kayla Dunbar).

Meanwhile the dictional glitches and complaints from years past were cleared up neatly, and the "Hallelujah!" nod to Leonard, brief as it was, was touching. The song at end reminding us that "everyone's a little unsatified / everyone's a little empty inside / nothing lasts / life goes on..." makes Avenue Q utterly relevant across every generation. And the final refrain gives all in the room reason to hope : "Everything in life is only for now", whether it's work, happiness, discomfort, sex, hair, even Trump.

Much much to clap your hands and stamp your feet and sing along with in this joyful, free-spirited production. Q is now a virtual ACT classic that no doubt will be re-mounted every few years or so. A tendency to stage people-pleasers is a knock often laid on the Vancouver theatre scene by critics & cynics : well, this particular people-pleaser is one not to miss.

Particulars : On thru December 31st at the ACT Granville Island stage. Week-nights @ 7:30, Fridays & Saturdays 8 p.m. Run-time 125 minutes in two acts, including intermission. Tickets $29 and up by phone to ACBO @ 604.687.1644 or by visiting

Producers / crew :  Music & lyrics by Robert Lopez and Jeff Marx. Book by Jeff Whitty.  Produced by Arts Club Theatre Company. Director & Choreographer Peter Jorgensen. Musical Director Sean Bayntun.  Puppet Concepts & Design Rick Lyon.  Set Designer Marshall McMahen.  Costume Designer Jessica Bayntun.  Lighting Designer Alan Brodie.  Sound Designer Brad Danyluk.  Video Designer Michael Sider.  Orchestrations Stephen Ormeus.  Stage Manager Pamela Jakobs.  Assistant Stage Manager April Starr Land.

Musicians : Sean Bayntun (Keyboards).  John Bews (Bass).  Niko Friesen (Drums).  David Sikula (Guitar).  

Performers :  Scott Bellis (Nicky / Trekkie Monster / Bad Idea Bear).  Jeny Cassady (Bad Idea Bear / Mrs. Thistletwat).  Kimmie Choi (Christmas Eve).  Chris Cochrane (Brian).  Kayla Dunbar (Kate Monster / Lucy).  Andrew MacDonald-Smith (Princeton / Rod).  Katrina Reynolds (Gary Coleman).

Addendum #1 : Coleman's character is based on the erstwhile t.v. child star of the show Diff'rent Strokes. Coleman's aura later in dimmed. He became a tenement manager on a slummy NYC sidestreet. His "finest" adultlife moment occurred, we are told, when he sued his parents for rippiing off his Strokes royalties. Karma being karma, Mom & Dad had to file for bankruptcy later on. That real-life vignette squares neatly with the overall tenor of Avenue Q and its characters.

Addendum #2 :  In previous show materials for Q, ACT provided the following descriptors that from the first I noted I could never improve upon by either tittle-or-jot, so I simply reproduce their words for the amusement of readers :

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, panhandling, wishing you were back in college, coming out of your shell, and recycling.


No comments:

Post a Comment