Review: Avenue Q

Avenue Q
Music and Lyrics by Robert Lopez and Jeff Marx, Book by Jeff White
Supa Productions Inc, The Q
Directed by Jarrad West
Musically directed by Elizabeth Alford
Choreographed by Pierce Jackson
28 April -13 May 2017
Book tickets

Brought to you by the letter R for Reprise this is Supa’s second production of Avenue Q in about 6 years.  There is inherent risk in re-doing a show so soon but happily I can report that this Avenue Q is a highly entertaining night of theatre which is accomplished in many respects.

Avenue Q  is musical theatre’s (adult) answer to Sesame Street.  Building a strong reputation off-Broadway before quickly transitioning to the Great White Way, the little show that could surprised many when it beat Wicked for the best musical Tony in 2004.

On paper, the musical is solid having also won the Tony for best score and best book. The show has a narrative – bright-eyed Princeton arrives in Avenue Q, meets its zany puppet and human inhabitants and seeks to find his purpose – but really it’s mainly a collection of zippy musical items jigsawed together, not dissimilar to the children’s show from which it takes its inspiration.

Building on top of what are excellent raw materials, Director Jarrad West delivers a production which flows well, plays to its strengths and often surprises.  The performance space is creatively used and West draws clear caricatures from his talented ensemble.  The show is well paced and the tone for the more risqué elements is spot on without being gratuitous. On a handful of occasions there is some mugging for laughs, and obvious (and seemingly intentional) deviations from the script.  This isn’t really needed, the script itself is genuinely hilarious and I think this will remedy itself once the cast gets used to the audience and restrain themselves from stringing out the punch line.

The choreography by Pierce Jackson suits the style of the show and achieves a great energy, which could only be improved by expanding some group numbers spatially to make the most of the entire space.

The set designed by Chris Zuber and Nick Valois and painted by Anita Davenport and Steve Galinec is functional, interesting and crucially, detailed (an element often lacking from Canberra theatre sets) making it the best musical set I have seen this year.  The use of video projections by Shannon Pope provides interest during transitions and the costumes by Suzan Cooper and puppets by The Rehearsal Room augment the action and concept well.

Avenue Q demands a lot from its performers, requiring puppetry on top of the usual singing/dancing/acting triple threat.  When it’s working you find yourself watching the puppets rather than the unconcealed actors.  This relies on nuanced puppet animation but also making sure that the actor isn’t drawing focus from the very puppet they’re controlling.  In other words, the actors should be a watered down version of their puppet persona, not the other way around. Some actors achieve this balance better than others, but overall the puppetry is well done.  In fact the show in general is very well cast.

Nick Valois’ plucky Princeton provides a good counterpoint to the more eccentric caricatures in the show.  He is somewhat vocally tentative at times but warms up with a good performance throughout. Emma McCormack sings well, demonstrates a clear and consistent character voice and provides the best puppetry of the night as Kate Monster.

Dave Smith (doing double duty as Nicky and a Bad Idea Bear) and Joel Hutchings (as Rod) both give outstanding performances as the shows nod to Bert and Ernie.  Their vocals and character choices nail the brief and together, and apart, they provide many of the evening’s highlights including If you were Gay and Fantasies Come True.

Niña Wood as Christmas Eve damn near steals the show every time she’s on and is fall-on-the-floor hilarious; demonstrating a comic timing that is beyond her years with great vocals.  Riley Bell is also clearly in his element as the wannabe comic and henpecked husband, Brian.

Josie Dunham is vocally impressive as Lucy and would benefit from infusing more of the characterisation in the puppet rather than in her own physicality to avoid imbalance. Newcomer Robert Stankov focuses on his excellent character voice and puppetry to portray a very funny version of the porn-obsessed Trekkie.  Joanna Licuanan-Francis as the superintendent Gary Coleman sings strongly and gives some amusing moments.

Jo Burns and Kate O’Sullivan who provide puppetry assistance and other ancillary characters round out the ensemble and do a great job.

The small but energetic band directed by MD Elizabeth Alford gives lively accompaniment to the onstage action and the sound is generally well balanced.  In some group harmonies the stronger singers were a little too prominent in the mix but this is likely to settle.

Lighting by Hamish McConchie is generally fun and enhances the action.  Quick snap lighting changes work and the window illumination sequence during one of the transitions is well achieved (if anything I would have liked to have seen more of that style during the transitions).  There’s the occasional missed cue but this will tighten.

Although I’m not a huge proponent of companies reprising shows in such quick succession, Supa have achieved an enjoyable piece of theatre which is the best musical I’ve seen at the Q this year. The piece still feels fresh and daring and I’m glad Supa and the director have decided to remain faithful to the core elements which drew such a following to the original off-Broadway show.

Despite this achievement, Avenue Q is not exactly well-known and with only a small cast the reality is that audiences may not naturally flock to it sight unseen like they would, for instance, to Les Mis.  I hope they do, because this little show is jam-packed with hilarity, fun and good ideas and deserves an enthusiastic audience – I encourage you to support it.



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