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Avenue Q at the Bord Gais Energy Theatre (Review)

I had the pleasure of catching the superb Avenue Q at the Bord Gais Energy Theatre this evening. The play is a rather brilliantly subversive exploration of what Sesame Street might look like reworked for an adult audience. Filled with the somewhat depressing notion that not everybody is special and not everybody has a special destiny mapped out for them in life, the musical manages to offer a more realistic pragmatic outlook on life without ever becoming overwhelmingly depressing. Brought to life by a talented cast and crew, it’s hard to resist the charms of Avenue Q.

You'd be a muppet to miss it...

Robert Lopez & Jeff Marx conceived the musical as a somewhat cynical reflection on the magic promises made by Sesame Street. Taught by the show that everybody is special and that they will live happy and fulfilling lives, Lopez and Marx observed that there was a fundamental gap between the future promised by the show and the one that actually materialised. Avenue Q works because it plays to the divide between the idealised future we anticipate as children and the reality that often fails to measure up.

That might seem like a rather bleak world view, and there are certainly some darker moments in the show. The show’s Bert and Ernie stand-ins, Rod and Nicky, are both dealing somewhat awkwardly with their dynamic and their confused sexuality. We see a grotesque reflection of the Cookie Monster in the Trekkie Monster, a shut-in who has perhaps developed his own addictions to cope with the modern world. The show’s special celebrity guest is the character Gary Coleman, who never managed to make it as a Hollywood star – the play proposes Coleman as a superintendent on the eponymous avenue.

Fur and Loathing...

There’s a delightful amount of irony from taking familiar Sesame Street set pieces and juxtaposing them with the harsh realities. Coleman and the show’s other human characters all dress in bright and childish outfits, conforming to broad and simplistic stereotypes. The word of the show is “purpose”, and the lead character’s attempts to define it. One particularly hilarious gag sees the phrase “one night stand” explained using a counting metaphor. The puppets themselves, lovely and lavish creations, all call to mind their inspirations – particularly in the voices adopted by the performers for Trekkie Monster and Nicky.

Of course, the show isn’t affiliated with Jim Henson and his creations in any official capacity, although Henson’s family have given the show a somewhat general approval. Being honest, a huge part of the appeal of Avenue Q is that, despite it’s somewhat pragmatic outlook, it’s never too dark or too deconstuctionist or too cynical. It isn’t a musical that will leave audiences feeling depressed, and it isn’t a nihilistic meditation on how Sesame Street has been systematically lying to generations of kids. Instead, it’s actually a thoughtful exploration of the differences between how children and adults must see the world.

Happy as Gary...

I have to confess, I loved it. I think there’s something wonderfully human in the puppets, which feels like a surreal thing to say. Brought to life by a skilled cast and crew perfectly mimicking the subtle head and hand movements of childhood favourites, the use of the recognisable archetypes actually grants the story a bit of depth. It’s fun to wonder if this how Bert and Ernie might have grown up if they actually existed, or how the Cookie Monster might have acted out in the real world. In particular, there’s actually something strangely touching about the Rob and Nicky subplot, which is really far more affecting than it probably should be.

Of course, the plot itself is relatively conventional. The main character, Princeton, has a fairly standard arc, and it’s easy enough to chart the trajectory he’ll take. There are relatively few surprises to the way his story plays out. However, this works because it’s meant to be a simple arc, it’s meant to be a simple story and moral, like it was when we were children. The difference is the shading and the subtle nuances.

Bear with me...

The play is helped along by a sharp wit. The humour is occasionally just a little bit cheeky, but quite a lot of the comedy is broad enough that it calls to mind those other iconic Henson creations. The musical numbers are stunningly well choreographed and hugely enjoyable. I imagine I’ll be humming quite a few for some time to follow, and might even seek an official cast recording soon. It’s all brought to life in the Bord Gais Theatre with considerable skill and verve.

If you’re looking for a lavish and stylish production with a winning combination of wit and heart, look no further. It’s hard not be moved by this story of belated growing up that doesn’t mistake realism for pessimism. If you can get tickets to the shows on Friday or Saturday, they are highly recommended.

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