Avenue Q won the coveted Best Musical Tony Award in 2004, which was a surprise considering it was up against the intensely popular Wicked, Caroline or Change, a wonder of a work, and The Boy From Oz (yes, our Boy From Oz). It’s eleven years on now, and it’s not quite the fresh and funny delight it was in its day; the show’s subversive edge has been worn smooth, and it feels dated, more so even than Wicked’s choreography.
It’s not just that Gary Coleman passed away in 2010 and references to his Diff’rent Strokes catchphrase flew over the heads of the 2015 Sydney audience. It’s not just that, given the deep racial despair of our country and the show’s native United States right now, “Everyone’s a Little Bit Racist” feels far too carefree. It’s not just that closeted Rod’s whole “bit” feels like a relic from the Will and Grace era of lazy stereotyping. But it is all of these things together, and more.
The sound design in the Enmore is muddled and meandering, which removes the refreshing bite from the generally upbeat Lopez/Marx musical numbers and leaves them feeling rushed or understated; “Schadenfreude,” a piece of musical controversy that still works, doesn’t land at all in the venue, and “I Wish I Could Go Back to College,” which represents the sweet underside of the raunchy show, doesn’t feel sweet or interesting at all.
Maybe it’s just that this production, directed by Jo Turner, doesn’t craft itself any internal narrative stakes. The show is a light bit of business to be sure, but for it to work as an engaging and entertaining piece of musical theatre there has to be some creation of stakes – something for the audience to be invested in and root for. Rushing past the sweet tension of Kate Monster (Madeleine Jones) and Princeton (Matthew Predny, drowning) does the show no favours; there’s no payoff when Princeton’s head is turned by Lucy T. Slut (Madeleine Jones again; that character name just gets more unfortunate every time).
Some of the performances are very strong. Madeleine Jones is a theatre darling (she was breathtaking in Once) and her work with her puppet-girls is charming and smart, and Rowena Vilar brings assured vocal talent to struggling therapist Christmas Eve. Justin Smith, a quick and funny performer by all accounts, seems washed out as unemployed comic Brian – something about the pace and timing of the scenes pushes him into the background.
Set design by Cat Raven holds no new surprises, staying close to the designs from other productions of the musical, but it does sit nicely on the Enmore Theatre stage. The puppets (puppetry and movement direction by Alice Osborne) look as polished as ever.
But really: what’s the point in bringing back Avenue Q and staging it again, and staging it in a muted fashion? What’s left to land simply doesn’t, and all we have are the faded remnants of giddy laughter from a work that comes from an America reeling from terrorist attacks, war, and corruption – only without the catharsis.