Avenue Q is back in town. For one week only, the Tony Award-winning musical graces Oxford’s New Theatre as part of Avenue Q’s eagerly-anticipated UK tour. But if, like me, you have been living under a large research/revision-shaped rock for the last ten years, then you will not have a clue what all the fuss is about.
The Avenue Q story is simple. Newly-graduated Princeton is searching to find his purpose in life, asking that fatal question for all arts students, ‘what do you do with a BA in English?’ He moves in to the lowly New York neighbourhood of Avenue Q, falls for kindergarten teaching assistant Kate Monster, and with the help of a furry cast of Sesame Street-inspired puppets, Princeton attempts to work out his problems and find happiness.
The concept might not be revolutionary, but the execution is certainly unlike anything I have ever seen before. For while Avenue Q gives the appearance of a fun and fluffy coming-of-age drama, this is a musical with teeth.
What excited me most about the show was its controversial edge. With songs such as ‘The Internet is for Porn’ and ‘Everyone’s A Little Bit Racist’, you know you’re in for something a bit different. The racism sequence packed the most powerful punch, with its still relevant message that all of us, whatever our race or colour, can be culpable of racist thoughts and comments. Rod’s struggle to come-out, in spite of Nicky’s reassuring song, ‘If You Were Gay, That Would Be Okay’, resonated with contemporary homophobia without straying too far into the overly cliché.
There were a couple of stand-out performances too among a talented and technically-accomplished cast. Understudy Emily-Jane Morris’s chirpy Kate Monster and sultry Lucy-the-Slut were highlights. Morris modulated between the two voices with impressive ease and dazzled during her solos. Stephen Arden’s porn-addicted Trekkie Monster had me in stitches with sharp comic timing. His violently erotic gestures lifted the monster masturbation sequence from looking like, what it basically was, an easy laugh.
Whilst watching Avenue Q, I also lost my puppet-sex virginity. I had seen simulated Barbie sex – what child of the ‘90s hasn’t? – but never sex involving Muppets. Hilarious and excruciating, as it was meant to be, unfortunately it was a climax to which the show never returned. The second half felt less edgy, less witty, and less adult as a result. Nicky’s homelessness lacked social grit and the song ‘Give Me Your Money’, about joys of charitable giving, was patronising. But by the end, my eyes were so fixed on the puppets, I rarely noticed the actors.
At its best, Avenue Q is a bawdy, post-watershed musical with more than a hint of social conscience.
Avenue Q is at New Theatre, Oxford until Saturday 16th August.