Avenue Q Review

Avenue Q’s Australian season opened a few nights ago at Melbourne’s Comedy Theatre and has been greeted with hilarity and laughter from very appreciative audiences.

First things first. Avenue Q may well involve puppets, but this is no kids show. It’s more like Sesame Street for mums, dads and elder brothers and sisters.

Originally opening Off Broadway at the Vineyard Theatre in March 2003, Avenue Q’s season was extended four times, eventually moving to Broadway’s John Golden Theatre, where it is still playing six years on.

Conceived by Robert Lopez and Jeff Marx, who began writing the show’s catchy score way back in 1999 for a possible TV series, Avenue Q won three Tony Awards after arriving on Broadway, of which the following should give you an idea of the cailbre of this great little musical:

AVENUE Q BEAT WICKED TO RECEIVE THE 2004 TONY AWARD FOR BEST MUSICAL.

Now while some readers may argue that’s not such a tremendous feat, as Wicked is not the best show on Earth, since that time Wicked has definitely proven to at least be the world’s most popular musical, arguably since The Phantom more than 20 years ago. Perhaps it was Avenue Q’s unique blend of humans and puppets that gave it the edge over the almighty Wicked.

Avenue Q has a cast of 11 performers, but on stage we only see 7 of them on stage. The Australian production has Michala Banas operating two of the main puppets (roles) in Kate Monster and Lucy T. Slut. Local audiences will easily recognise Banas from her many television appearances. She is perfectly suited to this show with a strong singing voice and wonderful facial expressions.

All of the puppets (here we go again … roles) in Avenue Q are comic ones. We follow the trials of Princeton, who after receiving his BA in English, finds himself unemployed and without a purpose in life. The set is NY tenement housing and the other puppets all live in the neighbourhood.

Avenue Q’s most popular songs are the Trekkie Monster’s (parody on the Cookie Monster) “The Internet Is For Porn”, Princeton’s song “It Sucks To Be Me” and “Everyone’s A Little Bit Racist”. The adult themes should be relatively clear by now, but just in case they’re not, we also get to see puppet sex on stage and ‘full puppet nudity’ (one of the show’s many taglines).

Don’t be fooled into thinking this show is just a little bit of fluff. Rather, it’s more than a little bit clever (but thankfully not overly so) with catchy tunes, many funny lines and a simple but interesting plot. How can 1.6 million people possibly be wrong (and that’s just on Broadway)? To date the show has grossed over $116 million.

Most of Avenue Q’s puppets are operated by performers who although dressed in muted clothing, are nevertheless in full audience view. With no attempt to hide the puppeteer, one has to decide who to watch at various points in the show? While it takes a while for some to realise the puppet is an extension of the performer’s body, it is at least clear the performer is portraying the same feelings as the puppet. But as puppets can’t show facial expressions, it is here the puppeteer rules.

There are moments of one performer with two puppets, or puppets speaking but the performer’s voice is not the puppeteer (the voice is from another performer elsewhere on stage), two puppeteers per puppet and even one performer who never uses a puppet at all! It definitely keeps the audience on their toes, but is in no way hard to follow.

Avenue Q has genuine moments of sadness followed by deafening comedy. This is a gem of a musical with a neat little twist in the use of puppets. The homage to Sesame Street will be clear but you don’t have to be a fan of the show (or puppets for that matter) to enjoy this musical. While Avenue Q is definitely not recommended for Drama teachers to take their students to on a school excursion, it is however, highly recommended for a great night out with your colleagues! You won’t be disappointed.

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6 Responses

  1. Deb says:

    I wanted so much to like this show but the puppeteers were too distracting. They pulled stupid faces through the whole show. It ruined it for us.

  2. Na says:

    I don’t disagree that being in full view can enhance the performance. But there is a fine line between being an enhancement and a distraction. For me, the puppeters were a distraction, not because they were visible, but because they were bad puppeteers. Similarly, if there is a band on stage with the actors, and is visible to the audience, the audience won’t consider it distracting – unless the band start playing out of tune.

    I’m not a purist in any sense; I repeat, it is quite common for puppeteers to be onstage and visible, and to do it well. In the case of Avenue Q, I thought they were bad.

    Anyway, it’s a case of agreeing to disagree. Many people have picked up on it; many have not. At least it’s gotten people interested in puppetry in this country.

  3. Cashy says:

    Naomi,

    You’ve raised some interesting points. Check out this video interview though, with the actor who used the Princeton puppet from the Chicago version of Avenue Q from this time last year. In reference to not being hidden as the puppeteer, he says “I’m just as much the character as he (the puppet) is”. This is how I saw it … the puppeteers enhanced the puppets meaning in Avenue Q, and as the audience, we were meant to look at both the puppet and puppeteer. I understand this is not the case for many puppet shows when the puppeteer is visible, but even if it offends the purists, I believe this is the intention of Avenue Q.

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yj0CHQQLIaI&feature=fvw

  4. Na says:

    I would like to preface that it was late when I wrote my initial comments and perhaps come off as overzealous.

    Your first paragraph is true on two points: one, that a non-puppetry person will indeed be focused on the human at first. What I have issue with is encapsulated by another audience member: that the actors portrayed expressions in their face at the expense of the puppetry.

    I agree that it is mainstream enough to encourage others to see puppetry; at the same time, the manipulation does NOT represent what is available out there to see, which is so much better. It is a double-edged sword. As a market for puppetry, again it is a double-edged sword. Avenue Q replicas are in high demand, and illegal replica makers can make a fortune from uneducated audience members.

    On the third point: whilst it may seem unique to the show, having visible puppeteers is not. In fact, it is an often used convention in puppetry. There are many reasons, one of which comes to my mind is practicality and finances. In order to hide the puppeteers, you must give them costumes which can be uncomfortable, hot, difficult to work with, and reduces the flexibility (and therefore the dexterity) of the puppeteer’s limbs and movements. Additional costumes may include hoods, which reduce the ability to see. For amateur puppeteers – of which Avenue Q’s cast certainly is – it takes additional time and money to train using such costumes. Going one step further, you may also hide the puppeteers using certain lighting techniques – which add on to equipment hire and limits the number of lighting design options you have. Finally, it is an aesthetic that most likely harkens to Sesame Street: the puppeteers are only hidden in those cases because of camera angles. Avenue Q is supposed to be a ‘stripped’ version of Sesame Street.

    But again: if the puppet manipulation is good enough, you soon forget about the people doing the movements and focus on the puppet. I have seen any number of puppeteers visible on stage and it is very easy to stop watching them. I take particular effort to watch the hands, as I’m always curious as to how people do things; but with these puppeteers I soon forget. The nuance of puppetry is that even without moving features, a good performer can make it seem as if the puppet *does* portray emotions. Indeed, a true test of a puppeteer is to have no dialogue at all and convey emotion with the slightest of movements.

    This is exactly what I mean by double-edged sword: I don’t think as a member of the puppetry community, to have the general public believe that the actor is always an equal character to the puppet onstage. They ARE two different things, and great puppeteers know how to make it convincing; more than that, they mute themselves so much that an audience member has the opportunity to enjoy the CHARACTERS onstage, not the ACTORS onstage. Perhaps that is a fine line not easily understood: but it is possible.

    The fact that your partner Sally couldn’t make up her mind confirms this in my mind – great puppetry doesn’t let you choose: you are forced to watch the puppet. Whilst I will agree with you that my experience makes me more critical, I sat with a friend who’s worked in puppetry for 20 years. She agreed. I had comments from friends who’ve only been doing puppetry for one year (I’ve been doing it for 6) and they also agreed. And again I’ve had comments from those who’ve never seen puppetry, and have agreed. I’m not suggesting that your opinion is invalid: rather that even the untrained eye subconsciously spots what’s wrong, just as Sally did. This is why I’m so concerned, that more of the general public should be educated about puppetry, and that they aren’t able to determine good from bad; if they can spot an off key, why not an off manipulation?

    (I don’t mean to put words into yours or Sally’s mouths… I get excited sometimes when it comes to puppetry)

    I said this on another site, and I’ll say it here: it’s a myth that puppeteers are in short supply in Australia. It’s a myth that there aren’t good ones who are triple-threats in Australia – VCA is full of puppetry graduates. I have no doubt that if the producers looked, they would find many talented people to fill the roles; that in fact is not in dispute, as the producers of Avenue Q (Oz and overseas) *specifically* hire professional – but untrained in puppetry – actors for the roles.

    I do believe that the manipulation will improve over time, as some comments from friends who have seen the show later in the season have suggested. But from the hype, I expected a great deal more than was given.

    … Anyway, that’s my $10 worth 🙂

    Hope you enjoy it just as much the second time around. – Also, if you get a chance, go see Ronnie Burkett in September. Compare and contrast with one of the best contemporary puppeteers. He performs in full view, and I promise, you won’t be watching him, you’ll be watching the puppets. 🙂

  5. Cashy says:

    Thanks for your comment Naomi. I probably didn’t make my point clear enough in my review. I was noting that many in the audience unfamiliar with the art of puppetry (at least around myself on the night I saw Avenue Q) appeared initially unsure as to who to follow … the puppet or the puppeteer? .. and that in Avenue Q the puppeteers’ facial expressions were so animated, that for the unfamiliar, this assisted them (i.e. if unsure, they simply looked at the puppeteer). Three things to me are obvious with this show:

    1) its attraction is so widespread it appeals to many who have never seen live puppets on stage before, resulting in people who are unfamiliar with certain conventions (I would argue the majority of the audience each night)
    2) good or bad, this is possibly puppetry for the masses … good publicity for the craft, but not necessarily under the right circumstances
    3) if the audience weren’t meant to look at the puppeteers as well as the puppets themselves, then why were they in full view?

    I went with my partner Sally and for the first 20 minutes I thought she wasn’t even enjoying the show. She admitted to me afterward that even after I had told her all about the show and the use of puppets in advance of seeing it, she still wasn’t sure who to watch for at least 20 minutes; the puppet or the puppeteer? For someone like yourself who constructs and uses puppets, I think you are naturally going to be more critical of the manipulation of puppets in Avenue Q, Naomi (and rightly so). But for the average theatre-goer, what they saw is probably good enough for them, because unless the manipulation of puppets was atrocious, most people would be unable to discern good from average, or bad.

    I can see your argument in your own review of the show, in that some of the performers were perhaps too ‘over the top’ in their facial expressions etc and this may well have detracted from our ability to focus on the puppet and not the puppeteer. But how could we avoid the puppeteer when the creators of the show made the decision to have them in full lighting and audience view? It’s a difficult question. I believe we are meant to look at both in Avenue Q. In fact we are encouraged to look at the performers on certain occasions and Brian (David James) was a great character throughout the show, but was human with no puppet at all. I found looking at the most animated of human puppeteer facial expressions a little distracting, yet it enhanced the intended meaning of the plot, spoken line etc. and didn’t, in my opinion, ruin the purpose of the puppet(s).

    The issue of acquiring trained, skillful puppeteers for a show like Avenue Q is a tricky one, because will they be able to find skilled puppeteers who can also sing the songs up to the required standard? Who knows if any of the actors in Avenue Q had previous puppetry experience (I’m sure you would argue not), but at least it appears they received some training from Sue Giles of Polyglot.

    I intend to go again to Avenue Q soon with a close friend who has been doing puppet shows for school children for the past 20 years. I left uni and became a Drama teacher, he left our class and formed his own puppet theatre company for schools. I wonder what he will say about the manipulation of puppets in Avenue Q? I suspect his opinions may be similar to your own Naomi, perhaps for similar reasons.

    Avenue Q is meant to be a feel-good musical that makes fun of itself as it goes along and on that level at least, it succeeds.

    Justin

  6. Na says:

    I take issue with your comments:

    “While it takes a while for some to realise the puppet is an extension of the performer’s body, it is at least clear the performer is portraying the same feelings as the puppet. But as puppets can’t show facial expressions, it is here the puppeteer rules.”

    If you can’t believe in the puppet as a live character, and instead have to watch the puppeteer for guidance on how the puppet should be feeling and acting, then that is a clear sign that the manipulation is not very good. A good puppeteer should be able to suspend the belief that the puppet is a mere object from the very first second they are seen on stage; whether the puppet has moving facial features or not. Indeed that is the whole point of puppetry: to bring an inanimate object to life. I know that it is difficult for non-puppetry people to disassociate the puppeteer from the puppet, but what you write suggests to me that you could not believe in the puppetry itself.

    (I’ve seen the show too and had the same issue. You can read the review at my site, where I discuss the above points in more detail)

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