Avenue Q – Review – Bradford Alhambra
By Michael Davidson, March 2019
Before Elsa ‘Let It Go’ in Frozen, even before Elder Price and Elder Cunningham marched ‘Two by Two’ in The Book of Mormon, songwriter Robert Lopez teamed up with Jeff Marx and Jeff Whitty to tell the tale of a group of down-and-outs trying to get a grasp on what it is to live and love in our modern times. The result of that collaboration is Avenue Q. A world touring, genre melding, Tony award winning musical that is currently playing at Bradford’s Alhambra Theatre.
I think Avenue Q manages to do something pretty special. It takes the familiar aesthetic of puppets from childhood shows like Sesame Street and juxtaposes that against themes of addiction, poverty and sexual repression, which the show explores with standout comedic musical numbers as catchy as any Disney hit.
Using puppets to tell more mature stories is nothing new. Jim Henson, who is arguably one the biggest pioneers of the medium (credit also to Jane Henson), spent much of his later career championing the concept as a credible art form with efforts like Labyrinth and The Dark Crystal. Though general consensus at the time was sadly short sighted. Their son, Brian, continued that legacy recently with The Happytime Murders. While unaffiliated with the Henson Company, it’s difficult to avoid drawing comparisons to their catalogue given the setting, voice acting, and puppet design in Avenue Q.
A notable difference though is that the puppeteers aren’t hidden beneath a sound stage. They’re instead out front and centre for the audience to see. You might think this would break the illusion but if anything I applaud the approach. It provides a whole new perspective on just how talented these performers are. The choreography was especially remarkable in scenes where individual actors were adeptly voicing multiple characters to live music cues while other players operated the puppets.
The show originally opened back in 2003 and should be celebrated for challenging such topics as homophobia in that era. Subsequent media exploring similar subject matter since then has dulled the comedic edge slightly. But the writing is still relevant and based on the audience’s positive reaction, resonated in a big way. This didn’t stop with the comedy either. As when the story hit an unexpected and relatable human level of melancholy, the room went silent with empathy. It was an impressive thing to witness given the furry nature of our protagonists.
“Incredible one-off set pieces”
The show is packed with songs that conjure up a fond respect for the format of musical theatre but with a welcome twist of South Park-esque humour. Personal highlights included ‘It Sucks To Be Me’ and ‘There’s a Fine, Fine, Line’.
Its not just the performances though, the whole set up is inventive in its execution with excellent stage design that adapts to the narrative in creative ways and has some incredible one-off set pieces that I won’t spoil here. There was a richness to the atmosphere throughout the evening, helped in part by the century-old setting. Credit too, should be given to the Alhambra staff who were all friendly and happy to help.
Overall, if you like satire and musicals I’d highly recommend Avenue Q. High praise for this production has been well documented from its off-Broadway origins and that acclaim rightly continues well over a decade later with this superb iteration.
Images: Matt Martin