Review Round-up: Critics Q Up to Praise Avenue?
Date: 29 June 2006
Tony Award-winning Broadway musical comedy Avenue Q opened last night (following previews from 1 June) at Cameron Mackintosh’s newly renamed Noel Coward Theatre (formerly the Albery). The offbeat show – billed as a musical form of Sesame Street meets South Park - features a cast of just seven humans, three of them playing humans, the rest manipulating multiple puppets that include a closet gay puppet called Rod, a porn-addicted puppet called Trekkie Monster, and a puppet looking for love called Kate Monster (See News, 17 Feb 2006).
Avenue Q has music and lyrics by Robert Lopez and Jeff Marx and a book by Jeff Whitty. It’s directed by Jason Moore, with puppets conceived and designed by Rick Lyon, and scenic design by Anna Louizos. The London cast features original Broadway cast member Ann Harada along with Julie Atherton, Jon Robyns, Giles Terera, Simon Lipkin, Clare Foster and Sion Lloyd.
Overnight critics enjoyed the light-hearted, zany take on modern urban living, but many were unconvinced that Avenue Q is as cutting edge, subversive or politically incorrect as it would like to be. As for the central conceit, although initially endearing, by Act Two, the inspired use of puppets in the show had lost its impact, according to the critics, some of whom also had reservations about the show’s Americanisms. (To hear what theatregoers thought on opening night, view our WOS TV footage and check out our 1st Night Photos to see which celebrities were in attendance!)
Michael Coveney on Whatsonstage.com - “We’re so mesmerised by the trick of it all, that it would be easy to overlook the brilliance of the art behind the charade. I became incidentally fascinated by the vocal ingenuity of Julie Atherton as the main man Princeton’s girlfriend, Kate Monster (doubled with Lucy the Slut)… There are a few problems. Surely no English audience has the remotest idea about the identity of a black former child star called Gary Coleman ... And the second act is definitely inferior to the first… It just goes a little downhill, partly because the material is less good, but chiefly because we have got the point of it all by now, and we feel like moving on to the next port of call, thanks all the same. Still, I haven’t laughed so much since Sooty and Sweep had a teatime television threesome with sweet little Soo.”
Benedict Nightingale in the The Times - “Extract the puppetry and the best of the songs, and the story is awfully ordinary… there are puppets and there are songs, and they do much to cover up the sentimentality and predictability. Most performers appear onstage… attached to a puppet, and the person and the attachment act and speak in sync. Since those attachments mostly have round velvety faces and large, lipless, toothless mouths, the effect is both a rip-off and send-up of the Muppets… Here, maybe, is whatever point the evening possesses. These puppets do, say and sing things I don’t recall when I watched their prototypes on TV with my children. They have pretty vigorous, variegated sex. They use words that The Times prints in asterisks. A large hairy puppet called the Trekkie Monster, and clearly indebted to the Cookie Monster, delivers an ode to porn. It’s mischievous and, frankly, rather juvenile stuff — but then what’s so wrong with that? Indeed, there’s something almost refreshing in several of the jaunty-sounding songs…. But to listen to the lyrics themselves is to understand why the show has had so long a run on Broadway. Those looking for something genuinely subversive or politically incorrect will leave the Coward unrewarded.”
Michael Billington in the Guardian - “Puppetry is no longer kids' stuff… As a late convert to the art of string-pulling and manual manipulation, I warmed to this Muppet-style mix of humans and puppets… Much of the show's charm lies in the easy interaction of people and puppets: one human couple, a would-be comic and his Chinese wife, effortlessly socialise with their fuzzyfurry neighbours. There is more wit than whimsy in the delightful Lopez-Marx numbers… But, much as I welcome the show's rudeness and the spectacle of puppet rumpy-pumpy, there is something very New Yorkish about the emphasis on cosy village life and private dreams. Underneath the show's glancing satire there is the inevitable feelgood ending in which we're reassured that ‘everyone's a little bit unfulfilled’. Having started from the premise that ‘life sucks’, the show ends with the hint of false cheer that goes with musical territory…” Nevertheless, decided Billington, “you have to admire the show's oddness”.
Dominic Cavendish in the Daily Telegraph - “Gosh, gee, golly and all things beginning with the letter ‘g’, what a disappointment… Maybe the zany idea, combined with the show's gilded reputation, will be sufficient to keep the crowds coming. But either something has been lost in translation or this dinkily alternative but incredibly light-weight affair, staged now with a mainly British cast, was never as much cop as its New York admirers have been claiming. Robert Lopezand Jeff Marx’s tame beast of a show lumbers up a cul-de-sac of one-note satire before hitting a brick wall of anodyne schmaltz… By the second half, I found myself mentally rechristening it Avenue ZZZ… No complaint can be levelled against the performers, who bound around the stage with all the cutesome, fresh-faced enthusiasm and energy of, well, children's television presenters. But the material itself ambles when it should run, and, too keen to be loved, never lets the fur fly.”
Paul Taylor in the Independent - “With a jaunty, if generic, score and smart, sassy lyrics by Robert Lopez and Jeff Marx, the show applies the look and format of Sesame Street to the college-educated but unsuccessful twenty- and thirty-something denizens of a low-rent neighbourhood in New York. And it gets a lot of comic mileage out of the mismatch… What's appealing about the piece and Jason Moore's bouncy, enjoyable production is the total absence of jaded cynicism. What's less attractive is the lack of real bite… All the same, I found it, intermittently, a lot of fun… it's not every show that manages to be tongue-in-cheek and hand-on-heart, while having its arm up a puppet's bum.”
Nick Curtis in the Evening Standard - "This affectionate adult spoof of Sesame Street is a one-joke show. Fortunately, it's a pretty good joke, for a while at least... The first few times we hear a goggle-eyed sock in a wig swear, it's undeniably funny. But even if we accept it as a wider satire on American culture or an even bigger mockery of universal human weakness, the puppets-as-real-people gag eventually wears thin... The actors, all but one of them non-Americans, are both convincing and sweet-voiced. Always visible, they manipulate Rick Lyon's deceptively expressive puppets beautifully. But once you've heard the title of a song - It Sucks To Be Me, Everyone's A Little Bit Racist - you've got the gag."
- by Caroline Ansdell
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