The cast of Avenue Q | Brighton Amateur Fishermen's Association

As we all know, 1939 was the year our world again lapsed into full-scale war which, on the historical evidence, would seem to be humanity’s default modus operandi. It was also the year Rockdale Musical Society got off the ground and, 72 years later (easily making it one of Australia’s oldest musical societies), it’s still going strong. Very strong, if its production of Avenue Q‘s concerned. I didn’t see the main stage season of a while ago, but I can’t imagine it could’ve, or would’ve, trumped RMS’ work-up. Not by much, anyway.

Avenue Q, of course, is an utterly preposterous musical, in two acts, conceived and devised by Robert Lopez and Jeff Marx, who wrote all the music and lyrics to boot. (The book is by Jeff Whitty, and is.) It’s Sesame Street, for adults. And if you thought working with children and animals was fraught, you should try puppets. Essentially, it’s a classic coming-of-age story, focussed on contemporary anxieties associated with moving from the comfortable innocence of childhood (albeit increasingly short-lived) into the complications of adulthood, with all it’s attendant sexual, social, psychological, marital and other bases for neuroses. God, I’m getting depressed just thinking about it.

It’s a bitingly cynical bitchslap to Sesame Street, which has tended to inculcate a false sense of confidence in kids, instructing them that each and every one of ’em is special. But you don’t necessarily feel so special, as, say, a black, unemployed youth, or a single,16-year-old mother of two, or 45-year-old WASP with no way up the career ladder, or clear way out of a disappointing relationship.  So, it has a serious side. Not that you’d notice, ’cause, aside from a series of heartrending ‘aw!’ moments, it’ll have you chuckling like Woody Woodpecker, or the early morning kookas outside my window.

Of course, there could’ve been no Avenue Q without Sesame Street, which not only draws inspiration from that source, but ostensibly mimics the format and characters. In fact, four of the original cast members were ex-SS.

In the age of ‘me, me, me!’, after nearly a decade, it remains a sobering and timely reminder of our individual and collective place in our world and the universe. (Whatever happened to humility, anyway? Oh, that’s right, it was superseded by celebrity!) With 2534 Broadway performances to its credit, someone must be identifying; and it continues to run off-Broadway. (Critics clearly ID: three Tonies, including best musical.)

RMS gives us a Sesame Streetwise set, with a tight band invisibly situated behind it (a bit of a shame, but a last minute change of venue probably necessitated it). It’s a big ask, but it’s amazing how quickly one gets by one’s adult cynicism: within moments, the puppets become as real as the human actors, even though there’s no attempt whatsoever to disguise the puppeteers, who adopt the same characters as their charges. These particular puppeteers are as adept as any I’ve ever seen, with voices to match. One or two of the puppets require two ‘operators’, yet the puppet moves as it was alive in its own right. Impressive!

Much of the action centres around Princeton, an optimistic college grad new to this down-and-out neighbourhood. He’s looking for his purpose, but instead finds Kate Monster, a big-hearted ugly duckling kindy teacher. Their romance follows a predictable, typical trajectory and they’re surrounded by a coterie of colourful characters, like Rod, an in-the-closet Republican investment banker.

But rather than giveaway the plot, let’s talk about the wry, bitter songs, like What Do You Do With A B.A. In English, a self-explanatory riff on the lack of currency provided by backstop academic qualifications, counterpointed by an impossibly jaunty melody. Idealism soon gives way to surrender. That segues into one of the highlights, It Sucks To Be Me!, in which characters compete in the whose-life-is-the-lousiest stakes. Take Brian’s, for example: “When I was little, I thought I would be a big comedian, on late-night TV, but now I’m 32 and as you can see, I’m not!” Or Kate’s: “I’m kinda pretty, and pretty damn smart; I like romantic things like music and art; and, as you know, I’ve a gigantic heart; so, why don’t I have a boyfriend?!” “It sucks to be me!” “Me too!” And there are plenty of other tunes that’ll have your toes tapping to dastardly lyrics.

I wouldn’t normally opt for a full cast-and-crew list, but this mob deserves bigging-up, right across the board. So, here goes: Osman Kabbara directs; Therese Doyle does so too, but musically; Anita Margiotta is Kate Monster; Chris Malliate (who possesses a priceless facility to enlist sympathy and, as such, is the overarching star, by a nose) is Princeton; Jon Holmes is Rod; Adam Ring, Nicky; Clint Grifiths, human actor and lovable bear, Brian; Jade Lumbewe is his feisty ‘Oriental’ wife, Christmas Eve; Monique Salle, a white female of average height, is hilarious, as Gary Coleman, with a merciless, litigious barrage of jokes made at his expense; Phil McIntosh is gruff, but good-hearted, Trekkie Monster; Chiz Watson is remarkable, as burlesque queen, Lucy T Slut; Brad Facey is the malevolent Boy Bear, while Kat Sharpham provides the girl equiv; Max Newstead is Ricky.

Believe me (or not), you won’t assemble a finer lot on any professional stage, let alone amateur one. Brilliant!

The details: Avenue Q played at the Brighton Amateur Fishermen’s Association on September 9-17.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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