‘Avenue Q’ // Shoebox Theatre Company

‘Avenue Q’ was hilarious.

Walking through the rather dated façade of USQ’s Toowoomba campus you wouldn’t expect to find one of the freshest theatre companies in Queensland, but Shoebox Theatre Company’s recent production of ‘Avenue Q’ delivered in spades and are proving to be a highly polished theatre company to watch out for.

Although it premiered in 2003, ‘Avenue Q’ is still as relevant today as it was over 15 years ago. Jeff Whitty, Jeff Marx, and Robert Lopez’s comedic masterpiece tells the stories of the residents of a fictional New York street, interweaving all the individual stories into a hilariously relatable tapestry. But with puppets. And beautifully created puppets at that, by Scott Richards of Maxx Puppets. Coupled with simple, yet effective costuming, the integration of puppets and people was seamless and believable, further enticing you into a world where puppet intercourse was an acceptable form of entertainment.

Both beautiful yet practical, Mary Quade’s multi-purpose set was a feast for the eyes upon walking into the theatre, even more commendable considering the theatre’s interesting shape and lack of traditional proscenium. Spanning multiple levels and with a variety of textures and colours, the benchmark of professionalism was set high and only continued upwards.

Ably leading the stellar cast as recent college graduate Princeton, Justin Tamblyn continually impressed audiences with his beautifully controlled vocals and convincing acting. “Purpose” was an Act One highlight, where his suave and intelligent performance commanded the stage, even as three singing moving-boxes doo-wapped behind.

Playing Kate Monster – the easily corrupted kindergarten teaching-assistant – was Shannon Gralow, whose impressive emotional performance truly allowed the audience to be encapsulated by her innermost feelings. It was the beautiful light and shade that she brought to the character that encouraged us to invest in her trials and tribulations, but it was her vocals that truly sealed the deal, her final belt at the end of “Fine, Fine Line” was a choice that not all actresses have the chops for, but Gralow stood and delivered one of the solo performances of the night.

Roommates Rod and Nicky were more than capably portrayed by Matt Collins and Ryan Paroz respectively, and their chemistry was dynamite – kudos to the casting. Although their rendition of “If You Were Gay” erred more on the side of slightly-offensive stereotypes rather than acceptance, it was Collins’ performance of “Fantasies Come True” that really struck a chord with the audience and both beautiful in terms of staging and blocking.

Approaching the “sensitive subject of race”, Shoebox need to be commended for their approach to the character of Gary Coleman. The use of a puppet rather than a ‘human’ is untraditional, but worked perfectly and was extremely clever. Angela Ponting’s attitude and charisma was perfect for the role – particularly in Schadenfreude, where she easily persuaded the audience to laugh at the misfortune of others.

Kyle Dever’s Trekkie Monster was hilarious from beginning to end. His natural comic timing and attention to detail seemed to enhance scenes, even if he wasn’t necessarily vital in them. Without being crude, the shadow box scenes were by far the icing on the proverbial cake, with literal tears rolling down my face during “Loud as the Hell You Want”.

Playing down-and-out comedian Brian, Ryan Gornall brought a goofy charm to a role that sometimes can get lost in a sea of stronger characters, however, it was stage wife Christmas Eve played by Jo Tooley that stole the show. Her comic timing was beautifully executed and her ability to play both harsh wife and supportive friend in the same sentence was hilarious and true to life. “The More You Love Someone” was engrossing from the outset.

The rest of the ensemble cast provided ridiculously polished tight harmonies and a variety of other funny characters, but a huge special mention to Catherine Carter who so encapsulated the character of Mrs Thistletwat. She may not have been a large role, but she delivered with such gusto and charisma, that arguably she was one of the most memorable characters!

The technical elements of ‘Avenue Q’ were extremely well executed, even with some small HDMI issues. The cut scenes were so professional that it left us wondering if they were provided for them or if they were designed in-house because the quality was top drawer. The lighting design was simple yet effective and there was always enough light in the space, which for an ensemble show is no mean feat.

Direction by Lewis Jones was clear and precise allowing the characters to find themselves without being over-directed. Pacing was a little slow at times which meant that some of the jokes fell a little flat, but this could be simply opening night jitters. Daniel Erbacher’s simple choreography was usually effective in the few numbers that required it.

It was Morgan Chalmers musical direction that stole the show though. From the very first harmony in the opening bars, the audience knew they were in for a hell of a treat, and this continued to the final downbeat. The tight six-piece band were a pleasure to listen to and wouldn’t have been out of place in a QPAC pit. It was such a shame that the vocals were not able to be made louder to match the strength of the band’s mix, but hopefully, this will be addressed in further shows, as it made some of the conversations with underscoring a little harder to hear.

Shoebox Theatre Company have proved themselves to be a company to watch, and will no doubt stage further amazing projects through 2019.

Shoebox Theatre Company’s ‘Avenue Q’ runs until 16, February 2019 at USQ Arts Theatre, Toowoomba. Tickets are available from https://artsworx.usq.edu.au/event/avenue-q/.

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