By BRUCE DENNILL
Avenue Q / Directed by Timothy le Roux / Pieter Toerien’s Montecasino Theatre, Fourways, Johannesburg 9
Avenue Q is a difficult show to describe. This becomes evident when, despite having read all the publicity material in advance of opening night, the experience of actually watching the production overwhelms the ideas that have been put in your head. People focusing on the piece’s use of puppets and the relative levels of adult humour say things like, “Imagine Sesame Street meets South Park.” That doesn’t work. South Park is crass; Avenue Q is not. Sesame Street requires puppets to convey all the necessary emotion, while in Avenue Q, even though the puppets are the characters, they do only half the acting, with those manipulating them having a huge visual impact on the feelings conveyed, even if the actors don’t interact directly with each other. There are a good many other shortfalls in that or any other pithy description, with the chief complaint being that none of those summaries highlight the atmosphere of joy that the piece creates. Focusing on whether that result is because of or in spite of the musical’s unconventional approach is perhaps an intellectually profligate exercise: the point is that joy – an emotion or sentiment of considerable power and complexity – is the product of a story of comparative simplicity, superficially involving the interaction of, well, props. And that’s a significant achievement.
The stage is set – it’s not often you get to use that phrase literally – by the excellence of the story by Jeff Whitty and the music and lyrics by Robert Lopez and Jeff Marx; and by the seamless interaction between the two. As in most great musicals, the plot is not complicated. A young puppet named Princeton (Ryan Flynn) arrives in town, hoping to make it big while “finding his purpose”. He moves into the street the show is named for, which is populated by a happily co-habiting range of creatures – other puppets, monsters, a couple of bears and a trio of humans. This inclusivity is not without its challenges – those being the topics most of the songs happily lampoon (consider titles such as If You Were Gay, Everyone’s A Little Bit Racist and Schadenfreude, for instance). But the production’s central message is precisely that: that being different or flawed should not be an obstacle to worthwhile relationships. And it is an idea that is quirkily, hilariously and effectively communicated.
The mechanics are the show are necessarily complicated. Most of the actors play more than one role, with the leads – Flynn as Princeton and Ashleigh Harvey as Kate Monster – often required to handle both sides of a conversation between their primary and secondary characters, even if another cast member is doing the puppeteering for one of those at the time. There are 24 songs, so the subtle switching of skills from speaking and acting to singing and dancing (and acting) is pretty much non-stop. The upbeat atmosphere of the show as a whole requires a huge amount of energy (physical and emotional), which cannot be allowed to flag, from the entire cast. And there are the minutia of the overall pacing (closely tied to the energy) and the timing of the delivery of the perfectly phrased lines. All has to sit effortlessly together if the piece is to have maximum impact, and to the great credit of director Timothy Le Roux and all members of the company, this was achieved on the opening night of the Johannesburg run.
Everyone was excellent, but two performances in particular deserve special mention. First is Ryan Flynn as Princeton and Rod. This is Flynn’s first lead in a major musical, but if you had been hitherto unaware of his output, you’d swear that was not the case. His singing is exactly what is required for both the personality and – somehow – the look of each of the puppets he manipulates, and every nuance of their respective dispositions plays out on Flynn’s face as he performs alongside his charges. There is no hint of the obvious test such an achievement must present either, with the actor making it look effortless.
All of the same is true for Ashleigh Harvey as Kate Monster and Lucy The Slut, if only more so. She has a recent and critically acclaimed turn as Fanny Brice in Funny Girl in the bank, but still exceeds even the expectations set by that performance. She offers wonderfully expressive, finely controlled movement, perfect intonation in terms of the different accents and speech patterns of her characters and a singing voice – best showcased in the thought-provoking There’s A Fine, Fine Line, but magnificent throughout – that everyone in the auditorium simply wants to hear more of the moment each of her contributions fade.
It’s hard to imagine either of these performances being bettered, and with the contributions from everyone else – Daniel Geddes (perhaps the most difficult voice assignment), Grant Towers, Rebecca Hartle, Yamikani Mahaki-Phiri (a startlingly clear high range for a big guy) and versatile ensemble members Nieke Lombard, Graeme Wicks and Songezo Khumalo – also being of a world-class standard, this production of Avenue Q will take some beating come next year’s awards season.