Stage: Avenue Q – Pieter Toerien Theatre, Montecasino, Johannesburg
REVIEW BY BILLY SUTER
BE warned that you should get some things straight before you buy a ticket for this first South African production of a quirky, novel and widely acclaimed musical which beat Wicked to take 2014 Tony Awards for best musical, score and book.
For starters, Avenue Q, a story of the woes and loves of both humans and puppet creatures sharing a rundown neighbourhood in the Big Apple, is not your typical Broadway-style musical, its clever, catchy, thought-provoking songs notwithstanding. Neither is it The Muppets nor Sesame Street. It does, however, combine elements of all these.
Now here’s the important bit: this is a show which, for all its cutesy felt, fuzz and fur characters – cleverly manipulated in full view of the audience by one or multiple performers who also provide the voices – is not for children under 16. It is also not for the easily offended.
When I attended a performance at the weekend, there was an awful lot of huffing, puffing, sighing and eye-rolling from two uncomfortable mother grundies in the row I was in. They refused to smile, let alone laugh or applause, and, as they hurriedly tut-tutted home at interval, made sure happier people around them could hear they considered Avenue Q “highly inappropriate”.
Bah hambug, to them! Heaven knows what they thought they were going to see.
If you are the type who easily reaches for smelling salts, please take note that Avenue Q is most definitely not for you. It covers issues such as racism, homosexuality, porn and schadenfreude (explained in a great song here, if you are unfamiliar with the word’s meaning).
Avenue Q also features a lot of swearing and, gasp, puppet nudity and high-decibel copulation! There’s even a character called Suzy the Slut… so this certainly ain’t The Sound of Music.
If you’re still with me, take note that you are in for a wonderful ride if the thought of this colourful collage of craziness holds appeal. Fun it most certainly is – as well as tuneful, lyrically clever, slickly directed and choreographed by Timothy le Roux, and starring a hard-working, very talented and animated ensemble of nine.
Together, as human characters or assorted ‘monsters’ who live on the avenue of the show title, they paint a kaleidoscopic picture of friendship and longing, sex and love, failure and hope – and it’s good to note that the show has been updated a bit since I first saw it at London’s Noel Coward Theatre a decade ago. Listen out for the Donald Trump reference!
Avenue Q opens with piles of TV screens flanking a set of attached homes whose windows and doors reveal characters that include a sweet creche teacher called Kate Monster, who dreams of getting a boyfriend and building her own school for monsters. She’s brilliantly portrayed by Ashleigh Harvey, who filled the lead role in the Fugard Theatre’s Funny Girl last year.
Harvey also provides the voice of the aforementioned Suzy the Slut, a man-hungry cabaret singer in sequins, whose every move is accompanied by swish percussion.
Then there’s Princeton, a recent BA college graduate who is keen to discover his purpose in life; very well portrayed by Ryan Flynn (son of the late Bill Flynn and actress Anne Power). Ryan, most recently part of the ensemble of the Priscilla Queen of the Desert musical, also provides the voice of uptight, effeminate banker Rod, a man obsessed with movie musicals.
Tall and versatile Daniel Geddes voices slacker Nicky, who is trying to figure out if his roommate, Rod, is gay. Geddes also provides the voice of the show’s most comical character, the toothy, furry and low-voiced Trekkie Monster, who is obsessed with internet porn.
Also contributing to the song and dance are the unemployed, wannabe-comedian Brian (Grant Towers) and his Japanese wife called Christmas Eve (a jovial Rebecca Hartle), who is a therapist with no clients.
And then there’s block superintendent and handyman Gary Coleman – yep, the now-adult actor from TV’s Diff’rent Stroke – who is impressively portrayed by Yamikani Mahaka-Phiri.
Completing the cast, and also featuring in various puppet manipulation roles, are Nieke Lombard and Durban’s Graeme Wicks (Pinocchio in Shrek the Musical) as the show’s two biggest mischief-makers, the Bad Idea Bears.
Featuring songs such as Everyone’s a Little Bit Racist, If You Were Gay, It Sucks to Be Me, The Internet is For Porn, What Do You Do With a BA in English, I’m Not Wearing Underwear Today and the standout, poignant There’s a Fine, Fine Line (take an extra bow Ashleigh Harvey), Avenue Q is a constant rib-tickler for anyone who will buy into its madness. I found it absolutely fuzztastic!
Featuring musical direction by Dawid Boverhoff, the show features puppets and scenic design by Kosie Smit, and lighting design by Oliver Hauser.
The musical is presented in South Africa by VR Theatrical and Kosie Smit by arrangement with Dalro. It has been booked into the larger theatre at the Pieter Toerien theatre complex at Montecasino until July 15. Tickets range in price from R100 to R350 at Computicket outlets.