Avenue Q is an amusing and cleverly written musical that covers sex, unemployment and even race with wit and daring. University College’s production, however, failed to reach the full potential of the script, as the songs and comedy often fell flat and satire was stifled by crudity.
The show opened with a stumble, in part due to sound issues that lingered throughout the performance. While the band performed excellently, actors often struggled to be heard over the live music – a problem that was sometimes overcorrected as microphones became startlingly, painfully loud. Hopefully these technical issues were merely an opening night fumble, and there’ll be nothing to stop future audiences enjoying the full ridiculousness of numbers like ‘The Internet Is for Porn.’
Lizzie John as Kate Monster was the highlight of the show, combining humour, charm and impressive vocal talent in one of the lead roles. But while the ensemble cast was enthusiastic, it seemed few had the vocal strength for musical theatre, especially when accompanied live. Overall the show seemed demanding for an amateur cast, as in addition to musical troubles most of the actors seemed disconnected from the puppets they brought to life. It’s a bad sign when the audience is watching the black-clad puppeteers and not the colourful felt characters at the centre of the story.
Though the show may have been technically lacking, the cast’s comic talent managed to enhance the experience. Jordan Koder was particularly amusing as the closeted Republican Rod, and the ‘odd couple’ dynamic between Rod and Sebastian King’s Nicky was a pleasure to watch. Sam Adler and Laura Rawlings were captivating as the Bad Idea Bears, who were both hilarious and slightly sinister. There were also several jokes added particularly for the college audience, which gave the distinctly New York play a new relevance and were undeniably a hit with the crowd.
Though the audience and cast alike were evidently enjoying themselves, this was a slightly clumsy production that would have benefited from more nuance. While rough edges on songs can be forgiven, the portrayal of some characters was harder to move past. In a production with limited casting options, having an African American character like Gary Coleman played by Grace Miller, a young white woman, may make sense, despite the additional suspension of disbelief required by the audience. But with a character like Christmas Eve, satirically written around Asian stereotypes, director Patrick Abrahams’ colour-blind casting had a different effect. Rather than subverting these stereotypes, having a white woman acting out Christmas Eve’s stilted accent and mincing walk simply dehumanized the character. While Emma Armstrong displayed comic skill, her performance was not so much satirical in the original spirit of Avenue Q as it once again made the Asian woman the butt of the joke. While simply casting an actor because their race or ethnicity happens to match the character is hardly fair, let alone likely to make for an entertaining show, in this particular instance a colour-blind approach benefited no one.
Overall this is an energetic show carried by an audacious cast, but while students of University College are sure to enjoy seeing their friends in this irreverent romp, the rest of us may be better off leaving it to the imagination.
University College’s production of Avenue Q played in the Union Theatre, Union House, at the University of Melbourne from 5–8 August.