“Is it like Sesame Street?” I laughed as I overhead the question a few rows ahead of me at the Arts Club Theatre Company’s opening night of Avenue Q. In a word; no. Yes, there are puppets, songs and everybody lives on the same avenue (Q) in New York but I don’t remember Big Bird ever having an obsession with porn or Bert and Ernie talking about homosexuality.
Avenue Q began as an Off-Broadway production in March 2003 and by July it was on Broadway and went on to win three Tony awards. This coming of age musical begins with newly graduated English major Princeton walking down the street singing “What do you do with a BA in English?”, guaranteeing laughs from the off.
Live actors are holding the puppets onstage but it’s testament to their puppetry and the singing that after a while you just focus on the puppets, especially when they are singing songs such as ‘The internet is for porn’ and ‘Everybody’s a little bit racist’.
The story follows Princeton as he meets new friends, falls in love and tries to find his ‘purpose’ in life; helped along by other residents of Avenue Q. The local performers were so good that I spent a good five minutes flipping through the programme in the dark trying to work out if they were the original Broadway cast.
Most are Arts Club veterans and all gave superb performances, especially Kayla Dunbar in the part of Kate Monster, Princeton’s love interest and Lucy, Princeton’s bit on the side. Torontonian Evangelia Kambites made her Arts Club debut as the building’s foreman Gary Coleman (yes, THAT Gary Coleman) bringing a sassy edge to songs such as ‘It sucks to be me’ whilst lamenting the life of a child star.
Andrew MacDonald Smith also made his Arts Club debut as main character Princeton and as Rod, a fabulously uptight closeted gay Republican who is secretly in love with his roommate Nicky (hmm, maybe I missed something with Bert & Ernie). The tense situation prompts Nicky to sing to Rod “It’s ok if you’re gay (but I’m not gay)” and Rod to hit back with a tale about his girlfriend who lives in Canada (“Her name is Alberta, she lives in Vancouver”) that ends with a line that had all the audience gasping, mainly because we were struggling to breathe through the laughter.
Although the tone is light-hearted there are some poignant moments – when Kate Monster has her heart broken and sings ‘There’s a fine, fine line’ Kayla Dunbar’s clear voice was bordering on haunting and the overall message is one that wouldn’t be out of place on Sesame Street.
Fun, irreverent and a little on the cheeky side (puppet porn, anyone?), Avenue Q is at its heart all about growing up, helping others and what it means to be a community. Outstanding performances from the cast with Broadway standard vocals, authentic puppets and clever set design transported us all to Avenue Q for a night of gasps of shock and laughter. Sesame Street this ain’t.