Music and Lyrics: Robert Lopez and Jeff Marx
Book: Jeff Whitty
Director: Cressida Carré
Reviewer: Scott Matthewman
For over four decades, children have been brought up with TV programmes such asSesame Streettelling them that they are special, that they can grow up to be whoever they want to be.Avenue Qtakes that premise, and uses the same technique of a human/puppet community to tell a rather more prosaic truth: that many more people are not special, and do not grow up to fulfil their childhood dreams – but that’s okay too.
Where the musical differs from the material it is satirising – apart from the language and sexual content, which makes its target audience far, far older than preschool age – is that the puppeteers are visible throughout. It makes their job all the more challenging: it is harder to imbue life into a ball of felt with stuck-on eyes when the curtain is pulled away and you can see the mechanics of puppetry, watch the black-clad performers sing and dance while they carry their characters on one arm.
And yet, thanks to some great performers in the cast, the effect is almost magical. Central cast members Richard Lowe and Sarah Harlington, whose puppets Princeton and Kate are the romantic leads of the show, also have to successfully portray two other characters (uptight, closeted Rod and busty, salacious Lucy respectively). Both do so admirably, especially Harlington, who at one point is called upon to argue with herself, switching between very different characters from line to line. And special mention must go to Jessica Parker, who is called upon to play second arms to some of the larger puppets as well as carrying and performing some of the principal characters while other performers give them voice. It’s one of the hardest, most thankless, tasks in the entire show and she makes it look effortless.
Musically, songwriters Ropert Lopez and Jeff Marx use the same crisp, straightforward musical lines that always madeSesame Street’ssongs so straightforwardly catchy to address issues that the Children’s Television Workshop would never dare address. From casual racism (Everyone’s a Little Bit Racist) to internet pornography (The Internet is For Porn), the catchiest songs are also the ones that you may not want to sing out loud in polite, non-theatregoing company. It’s easy to see whySouth Park creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone turned to Lopez to help them with the similarly adult-themedThe Book of Mormon. And yet, there is also a lyrical, romantic heart there, too: soulful ballad There’s a Fine, Fine Line, delivered excellently by Harlington, remains one of the finest musical theatre love songs of the 21st century – and similarly demonstrates why Lopez was able to craft more family-friendly fare, co-writing (with his wife Kristin Anderson-Lopez) the songs for Disney’sFrozen.
This touring production makes little concession from previous Broadway and West End runs, save for tweaks here and there to the street set. The most obvious issues include the giant-sized “Nightmare Kate” puppet, whose brief appearance feels a little half-hearted, and the TV screens on which small interstitial animations comedically cover some scene breaks. Within the Waterside Theatre’s cavernous auditorium, the clips appear at an unsatisfying, postage stamp size.
But that same size which works against those pre-recorded inserts is clearly no obstacle to the performers, who through sheer personality defeat the theatre’s intrinsic lack of intimacy in ways that other touring productions struggle to accomplish. Under the tutelage of director and choreographer Cressida Carré, they create a world that any audience member would love to revisit.
Photo: Darren Bell