— Andy Toth and Shannon Chan-Kent. Photo by Emily Cooper.
This is Jerry’s review of the original Arts Club production in 2013.
Bill Millerd has developed the knack of saving the best for last. Over the past few years he has programmed musicals at the Granville Island Stage at the end of the theatrical year meant to carry the Arts Club season through the summer. These are essentially the theatrical equivalents of beach reading: The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee; Xanadu. But they are delightful shows that have gotten sizzling Arts Club productions.
This year’s summer sizzler is Avenue Q, the hit American puppet musical that crosses South Park with Sesame Street, has one of the hottest sex scenes you’ll ever see on stage (puppet sex), and some of Broadway’s wittiest songs. Director Peter Jorgensen and a wonderful cast give it a peerless production. Avenue Q will vie with Bard on the Beach’s Hamlet as this summer’s must-see show.
Oh, you are thinking, the heat’s gone to his head! Comparing a puppet musical with Shakespeare’s greatest tragedy?! But the theme song for the inhabitants of this downscale New York neighbourhood could easily be Hamlet’s personal theme: “It Sucks to Be Me.” And remember how Hamlet desires to get the hell out of rotten Denmark and return to university in Wittenberg? Listen to three of Avenue Q’s principals sing “I Wish I Could Go Back to College.” Life is hard for intelligent, introspective young people trying to get some traction in life, whether in medieval Denmark or contemporary North America.
Avenue Q presents a mix of human and puppet characters—large hand-puppets held and voiced by the actors—struggling to make sense of their lives. The puppetry is clever, extremely well done, and kind of redundant. It’s not clear why some characters are puppets and some humans, but what the hell. The only puppet character who really seems to exist autonomously is Trekkie Monster, a combination of Cookie Monster and something out of Dr. Seuss. Voiced by the marvelous Scott Bellis, he seems to represent one of the principles of chaos in the neighbourhood. His song “The Internet Is for Porn” is priceless.
Song after song in this show surprises with originality, wit, intelligence and outrageousness: “If You Were Gay” (It’d be okay), “Everyone’s a Little Bit Racist,” “I’m Not Wearing Underwear Today,” “You Can Be as Loud as the Hell You Want (When You’re Making Love)”—the song that accompanies the pumping, humping, gasping, howling, Kama Sutra puppet sex scene—“There’s a Fine, Fine Line” (Between love and a waste of time), “My Girlfriend, Who Lives in Canada” (with its immortal lines, “I wish you could meet my girlfriend, who lives in Canada/And I could get to eat her pussy again”), “Schadenfreude,” and more.
Then there’s the beautiful ballad sung by Shannon Chan-Kent, an audience favourite (and mine) for her over-the-edge-of-stereotype Japanese immigrant character named Christmas Eve: “The More You Ruv Someone” (The more you want to kill them). She also gets to wear designer Jessica Bayntun’s best costume, a chiffon layer-cake red wedding dress—in which she looks ravishing—for her marriage to her live-in slacker wannabe-stand-up-comic boyfriend, played by Andy Toth.
The central characters are played and sung by Kayla Dunbar, who has a killer voice and real star power, and Andrew MacDonald-Smith: tall, lean, and lanky with a nice relaxed voice and a sweet, likable manner. Evangelia Kambites is great as the show’s most bizarre invention: former troubled child TV star Gary Coleman, reduced to working as a building superintendent. Jeny Cassady and Bellis operate and voice the Bad Idea Bear puppets, as cute as the Bad News Bears but serious troublemakers, like the bad angels of medieval morality plays, always tempting characters to do the absolute wrong thing. This is inspired playmaking.
Speaking of inspired, Michael Sider’s really clever video provides an entire additional dimension of fun on two large TV screens. Kudos to Rick Lyon’s puppet concepts and design, Marshall McMahen’s good-looking, functional cartoonish set, Sean Bayntun’s musical direction (he and only three other musicians provide all the accompaniment), Andrew Tugwell’s crystal-clear sound, and Alan Brodie’s lighting.
To see or not to see Avenue Q—that shouldn’t even be a question.