Anyone who’s heard of Avenue Q knows it’s satirical, generally filled with impropriety, and bears a lot of resemblance to a certain children’s show. What I didn’t know going into the show was that it would become the first musical I’ve seen that is written about the Millennial experience.
Like any descriptor that covers everyone born in a twenty year period, the story of Avenue Q isn’t the experience of all Millennials. It’s not going to describe everyone’s personal experience, but at the very least, it’s the story of someone you know. That person who grew up with really attentive parents, surrounded by the idea that they’re special and can be anything they want to be, only to get a degree and find out that everyone else is special too, which makes their job search difficult and raises questions about who they really are and what their purpose in life is. This is the journey Avenue Q‘s main character, Princeton, takes us on in the Citadel Theatre’s last show of the season, running until May 24.
Avenue Q is not the kind of musical that’s filled with fluff the way some are. It approaches topics that are serious – racism, accepting one’s sexuality, religion, politics, mental health, happiness at the misfortune of others (or, as they refer to it in the show, schadenfreude) – through both humour and puppets that relax the audience’s typical adherence to social norms. As I’ve written about before, puppets disarm audiences on some level. Maybe it’s their exaggerated features or the fact that they’re not of this world and they’re not pretending to be, or that seeing a puppet on stage requires the audience to accept in an even more overt way that what’s happening is in no way real, to buy into the illusion of theatre more completely. In the case of Avenue Q, the stylings of those particular puppets take some audience members back to their childhood of watching Sesame Street or The Muppets. In Avenue Q, all of those factors surrounding the puppets in the show, add up to allow the audience to relax a little and be more open to thinking about the social criticisms that come up in a song like “Everyone’s A Little Bit Racist”, as opposed to if those words were appearing to come from a human’s perspective, which might put up people’s defenses.
The puppeteering was excellent in Avenue Q. The actors bringing the puppets to life – Rachel Bowron, Ryan Kelly, Andrew MacDonald-Smith, and Elizabeth Stepkowski-Tarhan – were all double or triple-cast in their roles, showing off their flexibility in switching seamlessly between very different characters, or even playing two different characters at the same time. While maintaining the focus on the puppet at all times, the actors used their body from the torso down as an extension of the puppet, which eased the mental tension between the audience placing priority on paying attention to the human on stage (as seems to be a natural tendency) but knowing that we should be focused on the puppet itself. In particular, I really liked Rachel Bowron’s portrayal of both Kate (the girl next door character) and Lucy (the temptress). As Kate, her posture was very prim and proper – straight back, legs shoulder-width apart – while as Lucy, Rachel’s legs moved together and her torso shifted to one side, forming her body into an S shape that visually embodied Lucy’s low, seductive voice and sexual innuendos. The human actors – Justin Bott (a struggling, but hopeful, comedian), Kimmy Choi (a therapist with two master’s degrees but no patients), and Saccha Dennis (as grown-up and broke child star Gary Coleman) – added a lot of energy to the show and whose humanity brings the social criticisms lobbed by the puppets back into the real world.