Third time’s the charm? Doubtful in the case of the Arts Club Theatre’s Avenue Q, because this show’s been a smashing charmer since its Arts Club debut in 2013. Remounted in 2014, the show continued to delight sell-out audiences and there’s no doubt it will do the same this holiday season.
Avenue Q is a coming-of-age musical comedy conceived from the twisted but ingenious minds of Robert Lopez and Jeff Marx over 14 years ago. It features humans in a quasi-fantasy neighbourhood where puppets are alive and interact much like the PBS classic Sesame Street.
There are a few other subtle similarities such as the Nicky, Rod and Trekkie Monster puppets but the razor wit subject matter is decidedly not kid-friendly! On Avenue Q, the children have left Sesame Street and are just entering adulthood. They arrive with delusions of grandeur, having been sheltered by parents who convinced them that they were “special” all their lives.
The show begins with Princeton, a newly-minted college grad full of hope and anticipation. To his dismay, grown-up problems such as unemployment, rejection and uncertainty greet him as he enters the real world. These disappointments are embodied in the uproarious character of Gary Coleman, a fortunate child star who has met with misfortune in adulthood (a reference that might get lost on millennials who didn’t grow up watching Diff’rent Strokes).
Princeton is in good company with the downtrodden lot at Avenue Q where concealed dirty topics such as porn, racism and sexuality are gleefully belted out in unabashed, unapologetic song. Raunchy puppet sex and full puppet nudity made audiences blush and howl for much longer than a human quickie! Lessons are learned and everyone leaves with a sense of hope — and perhaps a sore gut.
Accomplished director and choreographer Peter Jorgensen knows a good thing when he sees it. Most of the original cast, crew and musicians from the 2013 production reprise their roles for this production. Why fix what isn’t broken?
Enormously talented and brilliant puppeteers Scott Bellis, Jeny Cassady, Kayla Dunbar and Andrew McDonald-Smith manipulate nine puppet personalities with symbiotic fluidity. Not only are they able to coax each of Rick Lyon’s puppets to life, but their human facial expressions add to, rather than distract from the puppet animation.
McDonald-Smith milks every pitiable moment out of the conflicted Rod and hesitant Princeton characters. Dunbar’s robust voice works equally well as mild Kate Monster or brash Lucy T. Slut.
Bellis and Cassady are a blur as two halves of the crude Trekkie Monster and the spacey Nicky. It’s almost inconceivable that they’re manipulating separate limbs. The duo are even more gut-busting when teamed up as the Bad Idea Bears. The performance of the human characters are just as exhilarating to watch.
Chris Cochrane is relaxed and easy-going Brian, while Kimmy Choi capitalizes on each Japanese stereotype of her Christmas Eve character. Katrina Reynolds as child star Gary Coleman delivers some of the most entertaining moments of the evening.
Marshall McMahen’s shabby-esque set is reminiscent of Sesame Street until you spot the crooked bars on crooked windows and garbage discarded along crooked steps.
Avenue Q is a metaphor for hope that diminishes as one proceeds from Avenue A through Avenue Z. Musical director Sean Bayntun leads a live band (John Bews, David Sikula, Niko Friesen) that are tucked underneath a clothesline-silhouetted skyline.
Alan Brodie’s precisely-timed lighting provides punch synced to the music. Jorgensen tickles the audience by drizzling the show with local references and current events.
Michael Siders’s intro video segment included recognizable Vancouver landmarks while chortles greeted the reference to Donald Trump.
Directed by Peter Jorgensen, Avenue Q is an imaginative combination of puppetry, catchy musical numbers, incredible cast and impeccable direction. One of the opening numbers is It Sucks to be Me, which may very well describe you if you miss out on this show at the Granville Island Stage through December 31.
Photos by David Cooper.