May 25 to June 10, 2012
People assume that as a theatre critic I go to see plays with a trenchant eye or a fault-finding meter waiting to go off at the slightest misstep on stage or in narrative. The truth is I go into a play with the exact opposite attitude. One of optimism, excitement and curiosity. But mostly I go to the theatre with the hope of being delightfully surprised. It’s not an easy thing for a show to live up to, I know. But it does happen, and last night it happened at the most unexpected of places – at a community theatre putting on a production of a musical I’d already seen on Broadway some eight years ago.
Storybook Theatre, deciding to step outside its usual family friendly programming, snatched up the amateur rights to the 2004 Tony-award winning Best Musical, Avenue Q and is now producing the Calgary premiere in a production that had to have its run extended even before opening night due to high ticket demand. Perhaps people are buying tickets on the show’s reputation or because they saw and enjoyed the play in New York and want to revisit the experience. Either way, they’re in for a resoundingly fantastic production that in my mind outperformed the Broadway version on a number of levels. Yes, outperformed. Imagine my delighted surprise!
Dubbed, Sesame Street through a dirty lens, Avenue Q introduces us to a cast of fuzzy felt puppets (whose human operators are visible on stage with them) and human actors living on a shoddy street outside New York. The story centers around a recent college grad named Princeton who, like many well-educated young adults, starts off with idealistic dreams of what life has in store. But soon enough Princeton’s naive dreams get quashed when he moves into a sketchy but affordable area and meet his neighbours who provide a slap in the face reality check of what life is really like. Soon enough Princeton loses his job before he even starts, screws up a budding romance, wastes his money on beer and is left depressed in his apartment moping to the tune of “life sucks”.
And I do mean tune, this is a musical after all. But not your average uplifting or melodramatic play put to song. Musical numbers in Avenue Q include What do you do with a BA in English?, Everyone’s a Little Bit Racist, The Internet is for Porn, If You Were Gay and It Sucks to Be Me. All the numbers are sung in the mock happy-go-lucky education genre of the Sesame Street oeuvre and are immensely humorous not just because of the mocking lyrics, but also in the disconnect between the meaning of the songs and the way they are sung.
Funny as the tunes may be, they could have been taken down by unimpressive voices and acting, but this was one of the areas where the production offered up my first a heaping dose of delighted surprise. Community theatre it may be, but this cast has voices and performances fit for any professional stage. Of particular note for their superbly funny and touching performances were JP Thibodeau as Princeton and a Bert-like character named Rod and Bart Kwiatkowski who plays the Ernie-ish character Nicky, a perverted monster named Trekkie as well as other characters. But without a doubt the show stealer in the production was Madeleine Suddaby playing Princeton’s love interest Kate, a slut named Lucy and other minor characters. When she arrived on stage with her beautiful voice and impeccable comedic and actorly timing, my first reaction was, who is she? Scrambling through my program revealed that this is only her second role in Calgary (the first being a U of C student production) and that she a musical theatre grad with some recent dance training. Cue another delighted surprise! Watching a relative newcomer take what can only be described as a star-turn in a uniformly impressive cast is one of those goose bump moments in the theatre that reinvigorates my belief in the magic of the stage.
If the cast rose above its community theatre status to make this a remarkably good production, then it was precisely because of the production’s community theatre status that it became a stellar show. The Easterbrook Theatre is a small space where the audience is seated in intimate proportion to the stage. The first row of seats is practically on the stage, affording the audience a very up close and personal view of the puppets, their handlers, the human actors and the band that plays just off to the side of the action. It was this close connection that really took the show to a higher plane for me. When I saw Avenue Q in New York, I liked but did not love the production. The cast was great and the songs just as funny, but in a traditional Broadway theatre I now realize that I must have felt removed from the characters and their emotions. The punctuations of sentimentality that creep into the script amongst the raunchy language, the depressing epiphanies, the clever use of video and the hysterical puppet sex, I felt were too neatly constructed and even corny at times. But in this up close and personal production, my distaste for the sweeter moments on the show disappeared as I found myself truly invested and rooting for the characters. Kudos must be paid to Director George Smith for embracing this small space and delivering scene after scene of wonderfully staged performances.
So, I know right……me – loving a musical and not bothered by the hackneyed moments? Well that was the biggest surprise of all, one I’m still trying to wrap my head around to get to the delighted part. But even if I don’t ever really figure it out, I find myself happily singing The Internet is for Porn (hopefully in my head and not out loud!) and basking in the glow I still get from spending a spectacular night in the theatre.
For the guys – Don’t be put off by the puppet thing. These are decidedly adult puppets doing decidedly adult things. The sex scene alone will leave you laughing long after the show is over. SEE IT
For the girls- It’s not all raunch and four letter words. Although there is lots of it. The story is relatable and the character of Kate will punch a hole right through your heart. SEE IT
For the occasional theatre goer – If you can handle the R-ratedness of the subject matter and are up for a good cynical laugh, the unconventional structure of puppets as actors won’t be a problem. MAYBE SEE IT
For the theatre junkie – I could give you many reasons to go. Community Theatre fighting way above their weight class? Check. Star-making performance? Check. Clever script and strong production? Check. Need I say more? SEE IT