Back to charm a new generation of theatregoers, Avenue Q is as tuneful, hilarious and relevant as ever in this confidently staged revival production.
Almost a revue, Avenue Q has a loose narrative structure centred on new arrival Princeton’s journey to find his Purpose. Jeff Whitty’s economical book keeps Jeff Marx and Robert Lopez’s supremely hummable songs coming thick and fast. Amidst the laughter, the audience is unwittingly drawn into the characters’ lives so that the more emotional songs and moments land with a heartfelt meaning.
An aspect that is of increased poignancy at this time is the concept of a race/creed of people all being judged and condemned by the extreme actions of a few.
Of principal attraction in this new season is the quality of the singing. Having seen Avenue Q in Broadway, London and Melbourne (2009), this is surely the most beautifully sung performance of the show I have experienced. Musical director Trevor Jones sets aside the nasal Broadway belt sound to bring out a gentle, unforced vocal quality that is really lovely to hear.
Director Peter J Snee matches the attractive vocal tones with nicely unforced performances, avoiding the temptation to go for larger than life caricatures. Energy remains high, but is channeled and focused into the intricacy of playing multiple characters with distinction. While broad humour can gain easy laughs, the subtler playing style on show is far more effective for landing the affecting emotional moments.
Robert Lewis contributes some nifty, natural choreography that adds to the entertainment level.
John Kerr’s streamlined set design keeps the original look and a good number of the hidden tricks. Costume design, by Nathan Alexander, keeps the puppeteers in neutral grey and black while the “human” characters are dressed in bright colours. Jason Bovaird’s lighting design brings an ever-changing rainbow of colour to the single set show, creating plenty of visual appeal.
Ross Hannaford gives a remarkably strong performance in the dual roles of restless college graduate Princeton and uptight, closeted banker Rod. Hannaford’s singing voice as Princeton is gorgeous, and he contrasts this strongly with a completely different sound for Rod.
Likewise, rising star Sophie Wright provides a sweet, unaffected voice for idealistic kindergarten teacher Kate Monster and a sultry, vampish tone for nightclub singer Lucy the Slut. Both Hannaford and Wright are called upon to voice both of their characters on stage at the same time. To watch them maintain the action of one puppet character while voicing the other is astounding.
Vincent Hooper is another highly talented player in the ensemble cast of nine. Hooper not only voices slacker Nicky and cranky, porn-obsessed Trekkie Monster but also joins the delightful Lulu McClatchy as the fiendishly adorable Bad Idea Bears. Hooper also has to flip between voices while on stage maintaining the puppetry of one of the characters; like Hannaford and Wright he achieves this flawlessly. McClatchy scores further laughs as cantankerous biddy Mrs Thistletwat.
Sun Park keeps the characterisation of Christmas Eve well clear of racist stereotyping by being clearly in on the joke herself. Park’s breakout vocals in comic torch song “The More You Ruv Someone” are stunning. Andrew Hondromatidis conveys the genial good will of unflustered fiancé Brian. Zuleika Khan has sparkling charisma to spare as friendly building superintendent Gary Coleman.
For a return visit or a wonderful initiation, this all too brief season of Avenue Q is appealing entertainment and solid value.
Avenue Q plays at Her Majesty’s Theatre, Melbourne until 14 August 2016.
Photos: Nicole Riseley