According to Charlie Brooker this week: 'Musicals are not to be trusted. They're not right.' Having just seeing Avenue Q, I feel he may be right. You should never trust anything that makes you laugh out loud at manifest evilness of bears.
The Bad Idea Bears (who could between them confirm all of Mr. Grasso's suspicions of ursine evil, especially when they end up converting to Scientology) were among the many moments when Avenue Q had me shaking with laughter. The idea of an adult musical inspired by and following the conventions by Sesame Street was always going to be either a glorious fist of furry fun or a slow-motion car crash. It ended up being a fuzzball riot and I loved it.
Anything that relies on the instant recognition of childhood for its hook has to have something more powerful in the tank to last beyond 10 minutes. If the only humour in Avenue Q was knowing that Rod and Nicky are versions of Bert and Ernie, Trekkie Monster is related to Cookie Monster and its human characters are a satire on the rainbow casting of children’s TV, the show would fall flat. Even rather fabulous songs on the universality of racism, heartbreak and sex in the characteristically bouncy style of Sesame Street would not be enough to keep you interested for more than two hours.
What makes Avenue Q not just funny, not just brilliantly staged and performed, but worth watching is that it observes some of the widespread angst of my generation without being poncey. Without any sense of effort, it casually managed to be as deep as your average Enda Walsh play. However, it did this without any annoying hint of pretension and the added bonus of brilliant puppets.
My definition of a brilliant puppet is one that, through the performance of the pupeteer, you forget is rods, felt and stuffing and begin to interact with imaginatively in the same way you do any theatrical character brought to life. Kermit the frog would be a good example of this. When Jim Henson got the little green blighter right, he could do a lot more than teach children how to count.
The Avenue Q puppets stopped being furr and strangely coloured noses within the first couple of scenes. When the emotionally crushed Kate Monster sings: ‘There is a fine, fine line/ Between love and a waste of time’ it works because she is expressing a human experience. She is no longer the bastard child of Zippy from Rainbow and Zoe from Sesame Street; she is simply someone who made a huge emotional investment in the wrong person.
While I laughed lines such as: ‘Schadenfreude? What's that, some kinda Nazi word?’ and lyrics like: ‘Everyone's a little bit racist sometimes/Doesn't mean we go around committing hate crimes’ two of my biggest chuckles of the night did not come from the libretto. The announcement that Naoko Mori (geek readers will know her as Toshiko Sato from Torchwood) could not continue playing her part in the second half due to her ‘disposition’ dripped such distilled sarcasm you could not help but squirm in discomfort. Even funnier was when a member of the audience sitting close to us announced a little bit too loudly as a banner proclaiming ‘Monsteresorri School’ was unfurled: ‘I know it’s a real word, but I don’t get it.’
Not wanting to confirm Mr. Brooker’s thesis on musicals, but the next one I intend to see is Wicked. It is a show notorious for its satire on spin and the loss of free speech that just happens to feature a green-skinned guerrilla and flying monkeys. Like Avenue Q, it is definitely one not to be trusted.