I admit that initially, I thought Avenue Q would be childish. I hadn’t seen much about the production and advertising didn’t really give anything of the story away. From what I had seen, I wasn’t impressed. Puppets for adults? Really? Well, after seeing the show I can now confirm that I was very wrong.
Yes, Avenue Q uses puppets, but the production isn’t silly nonsense. The show is a coming of age story that addresses issues facing young adults such as finding your purpose, dating, sexuality, racism, financial struggles and belonging in a clever yet light-hearted way.
The show has been running for 15 years, which is an incredible achievement. In fact, Avenue Q is 24th on the list of longest-running show in Broadway history. The story is still surprisingly relevant all these years later. Though written in 2002, the themes of self-actualisation, love, and fulfillment are relatable to anyone in these modern times, particularly 20-somethings. As someone nearing 30, I still find the topics relevant but wish I had watched this years ago.
What the promoters have done really well, in addition to pulling off a world-class production, is appeal to students. On Wednesday evenings, students are able to get in for R100 and receive a complimentary Impi Brewing Co. craft beer!
Since watching the South African production, as I usually do, I’ve been listening to the soundtrack. What’s remarkable is how similar the performances are to the Broadway cast recordings, and are even better than the American cast in some cases. I’ve said this numerous times but I am constantly wowed by our local talent and the South African Avenue Q cast is no exception.
Not only are the songs performed impeccably, but the lyrics perfectly summarise the various early adulthood topics. Each song addresses the thoughts and emotions we can all relate to about discovering exactly who we are and what’s acceptable as an adult. The songs are catchy and cheerful as well, in true Sesame Street style, but speaking about adult topics, which adds to the humour.
Beyond the story, what I found really interesting is the use of puppets. Everyone on stage is incredibly talented, from the main cast to the ensemble. With a cast of 9 actors, the production is run perfectly with most actors playing multiple roles. As Avenue Q is a musical, all actors need to sing and perform at the same time, which is truly fascinating to see. Although the intention is that you don’t notice the puppeteers on stage, what I found is that I kept darting between the puppet and actor. To me, it made complete sense without being distracting. The actor was an extension of the puppet and anything a puppet was unable to show you, was embodied in the actor’s performance, which surprisingly just worked. I can’t really explain it; you have to see it for yourself to know what I mean.
This begs the question, why use puppets at all? This is something I’ve thought about quite a bit since watching it. But, I don’t actually think there’s any other way this story could be told other than through the use of puppets. You see, if the play didn’t use the puppets, then the lessons would seem quite silly. This isn’t to take away from the relevance of what is portrayed, but the story has been written with the delivery of the narrative in mind. The use of puppetry is actually really clever in teaching audiences lessons, that sometimes we need to be reminded of, in a way that isn’t condescending and is fun without being silly.
The craftsmanship of the puppets is also noteworthy. Each puppet was handmade right here in South Africa to embody each character’s personality. Though similar to the look of puppets in other international productions, each region creates their own ‘cast’, which just makes me appreciate what South Africans can do even more.
Avenue Q is guaranteed to make you smile, and in fact, will have you in stitches with the blunt truths of what it means to be an adult. The story is a reminder to not take life so seriously and remember that no matter what you’re going through, whether good or bad, it’s only for now.
Catch Avenue Q at the Pieter Toerien theatre in Montecasino (Johannesburg) until Sunday, 15 July 2018. To book tickets, click here.
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