‘Avenue Q‘ was naughty.
The naughties, or 2000s, were a strange time for the world, even the world of musical theatre. Given the two decades since it was conceived, ‘Avenue Q’s’ content presents some challenges in an era of political correctness and offence. With that in mind, Shoebox Theatre Company has bravely staged the show at the ever-stunning Empire Theatre in Toowoomba.
Described as a blend between Sesame Street and the real world, ‘Avenue Q’ follows a series of puppets through their life in a poverty-stricken neighbourhood. Questions of class, race, gender, sexuality and identity trickle through the piece, with the dialogue and plot often teetering between offensive and a wake-up call. While the musical theatre show has some quality jazz numbers and one-liners, it also contains enough adult content to deem it inappropriate for minors and those with a more sensitive constitution. ‘Avenue Q’ was well received when it debuted in 2003, but the debate as to whether it makes fun of offensiveness, or is itself offensive, remains a hot topic.
Regardless of the sociopolitical commentary on the piece, audiences at Toowoomba’s Empire Theatre were laughing, clapping and on their feet throughout the show. Clever lighting, by Ben Hunt, was used in the auditorium to involve audience members at key moments in the show; additionally, beautifully diverse colours were used to set the mood and tone in various scenes. However, the lighting was not complemented by the sound. At times, the performers were inaudible, and at others, the balance was not met between band and vocals. As it was opening night, these issues should mend themselves, and the cast did an outstanding job at covering any discontent.
Supporting the excellent lighting was a cleverly designed set, mimicking that of Sesame Street, and incorporating two large digital screens to the right and left. The set was intricately crafted by a large construction team, with details like antennas, air conditioning backends and basement windows. This was supported at times by pull-in sets, and inspiring graphics and animations projected onto the digital screens. The designer of the show is credited as Mary Quade, whose influence seems to have trickled down into all the aesthetic components of the production wonderfully. In regards to costumes and props, some of the stars of the show were puppets wonderfully constructed by Scott Richards of Maxx Puppets.
Directed by Lewis Jones, the production was well-paced and dynamic. Blocking never felt stagnant and there were some clear choices with regards to paying homage to the shows that inspired ‘Avenue Q’. Vocal Coaching by Jess Berwick made a noticeable impact as many opted for strong New York accents over general American, and avoided vocal gymnastics in favour of beautiful harmonies and straightforward numbers. Supporting the vocals was a strong and high-quality band of approximately six players, led by Musical Director Morgan Chalmers.
With the use of puppets limiting some movements, dance choreography did not play a huge role in the show. That being said, the choreography of the puppets, particularly those with two assistants, was impeccable. The fact that the people blended into the background and became seamless, reflects the strategy and skill of both choreographer, Daniel Erbacher, and the performers.
Justin Tamblyn delivered the titular character, Princeton, with the necessary blend of innocence and determination. He sang well, and had great onstage chemistry with love interest Kate Monster, portrayed by Shannon Gralow. In many ways, Gralow’s exceptional stage presence and ability to embody her character was the highlight of the show.
Anna Roche-Kelly delivered a perfectly sensual rendition of Lucy, while Kyle Dever generated dozens of laughs as Trekkie Monster. James Taylor and Ryan Paroz were very entertaining as the sexually confused and overly intimate friends, Rod and Nicky. Other lead performers included Angela Ponting as Gary Coleman, Jo Tooley as Christmas Eve, and Dan Stewart as Brian.
Catherine and Mitch Humphrys, superstar husband and wife duo, filled several minor roles including that of the Yellow and Blue Bad Idea Bears. Their comedic vocal work and clever characterisations were adored by the audience, proving that every small part counts.
Some audience members will simply enjoy the laughs and naughtiness, some will leave offended by the rampant racism and underlying sexism, and others still will see the show as holding up a mirror to both its audience and the society in which it is produced. Whether art and society can ever truly be separated is a question more for the aestheticists than the average theatre-goer.
Shoebox Theatre Company has tackled a show with challenging content, but an enjoyable setlist and likeable characters. They have delivered a tight show with only minor technical concerns and a lot of guts. Master puppetry, skilful vocals and the whole team’s eye for design were the standout features of this production.
‘Avenue Q’ performs until 20 February 2021 at Toowoomba’s Empire Theatre. For more information about Shoebox Theatre Company visit their website.