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Theatre review: Avenue Q is this summer’s must-see show

What happens when you cross Sesame Street with South Park?  You get the cheeky irreverence of Avenue Q, a hybrid that combines live action players with puppets into a singularly funny piece of musical theatre.

Members of the cast of the Arts Club Theatre Company production of Avenue Q. Photo by Emily Cooper.

Members of the cast of the Arts Club Theatre Company production of Avenue Q. Photo by Emily Cooper.

Princeton, who happens to be one of a number of puppet residents on Avenue Q, is fresh out of college and looking for his purpose in life.  Finding himself on Avenue Q, a rundown area of the city that seems to be the jumping off point for many idealistic young folk, Princeton joins his fellow residents, human and puppet alike, in finding their way in a sometimes cruel world.

Holding little back, Avenue Q is one of those rare pieces of musical comedy that works on a number of levels, whether it is in discovering that indeed “Everyone is a Little Bit Racist” or that “The Internet is for Porn”, the show refuses to apologise for its explicit language and very adult situations (you’ve been warned).  One of the show’s biggest strengths, despite its odd mix of actors and puppets, is in successfully existing inside a very real world, full of life’s everyday uncomfortable realities.

Easily handling the Robert Lopez and Jeff Marx penned music and hilarious lyrics are the talented cast of Scott Bellis, Jeny Cassady, Shannon Chan-Kent, Kayla Dunbar, Evangelia Kambites, Andrew MacDonald-Smith, and Andy Toth.  A testament to their skills as singers, there is not a single dropped syllable ensuring we get every one of this show’s very funny lyrics.  That they breath real life into the ridiculousness of the situations is a testament to their acting abilities as well.

While the puppeteers (Bellis, Cassady, Dunbar, MacDonald-Smith) are always seen, to their credit they do effectively manage to bring the focus to the brightly coloured characters on their hands, rather than on themselves.  Bellis and Cassady are particularly fun to watch as they flawlessly work in tandem animating a single puppet.  The level of competency of these puppeteers is on display as well in some of the more complicated scenes or in the quick transitions where a different actor takes on the operation of the puppet while the voice is provided by another.  The puppet sex scene that is orchestrated by MacDonald-Smith and Dunbar will have you in tears.

There is no denying that act one is funnier, as it gets the bulk of the laugh-out-loud songs, but even as the play loses some of the momentum in the second half it isn’t from a lack of energy from this cast, which gives it everything from start to finish.

Director and choreographer Peter Jorgensen keeps things simple, but leaves nothing to chance.  Recognizing that the real strength of this show comes from its music and lyrics and in allowing his cast and band to shine, he places his focus on the small details that brings this surreal world to life.  Marshall McMahen’s set design is inspired with everything just slightly off-kilter, just like its story and inhabitants.

As long as you don’t mind your musicals a little racy you really must make it your own purpose in life to take in this summer’s must-see show.  Just be sure to leave the little ones at home.

Avenue Q

Music and lyrics by Robert Lopez and Jeff Marx. Book by Jeff Whitty. Directed by Peter Jorgensen. Musical direction by Sean Bayntun. An Arts Club Theatre Company production. On stage at the Arts Club Granville Island Stage, now extended through September 14, 2013. Visit http://artsclub.com for tickets and information.

Mark Robins on Google+

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