In 2004 on Broadway, against all the odds, a little show called Avenue Q snatched three Tony Awards for Best Book, Best Score and Best Musical from a monster hit, Wicked. This month, VR Theatrical and Kosie Smit present that triple Tony winner to Johannesburg audiences.
The Broadway production was described as “equal parts puppetry, comedy and catchy tunes”. Avenue Q is a laugh-out-loud comedy musical that tells the timeless story of a recent college graduate, named Princeton, who moves into a shabby New York apartment all the way out on Avenue Q.
He soon discovers that although the residents seem nice, it is clear that this is not your ordinary neighbourhood. Together, Princeton and his new-found friends struggle to find jobs, dates, and their ever-elusive purpose in life.
TV programmes like Sesame Street in America and Takalani Sesame here in South Africa teach values and life-skills to young children through the use of puppetry and songs.
Avenue Q applies the same principle by teaching real life lessons and broaching hard-to-discuss adult topics such as racism, pornography and a whole lot more in an entertaining and colourful manner.
The South African premiere will be directed and choreographed by Timothy le Roux, with musical direction by Dawid Boverhoff. Smit is tasked with puppet creation as well as scenic design. Lighting design is by Oliver Hauser.
Le Roux said: “The all South African cast were put through their paces at auditions late last year. In musical theatre jargon the term “triple threat” is often used to describe a person who is good at acting, singing and dancing. What makes this piece of theatre unique is that it includes all that, plus puppetry skills, which requires intensive training for our actors.”
The cast features stellar performers such as Ashleigh Harvey, Clive Gilson, Daniel Geddes, Grant Towers, Yamikani Mahaka-Phiri, Rebecca Hartle, Nieke Lombard, Graeme Wicks and Songezo Khumalo. Actors operate the puppets in full view of the audience, using both their hands while singing, acting and dancing.
Creators Jeff Marx and Robert Lopez asked themselves the question, “What can we write that people our age will actually like and would like to see and would not have to be dragged to?”
Lopez says they realized they were not in the demographic that musicals appealed to because people in their age group generally do not like musicals.
“We figured since young audiences today couldn’t accept human beings suddenly breaking into song, then we simply shouldn’t write for human beings!” Lopez says.
Marx adds that they wanted to address so many different but relevant topics. “How do you have a show with so many different subjects? What we really wanted to create was a hybrid that employed some internet logic. A hyperlink type logic to go from one subject to the other”.
Puppet master Smit says when the opportunity arose for him to build Avenue Q’s puppets, he grabbed it with both hands and tackled the challenge head on. He had to build 18 puppets from scratch which not only had to conform to the director’s needs, but also had to be moulded on the character descriptions and personalities described in the script.
Every puppet is unique and has a particular personality.
“Creating these little people was a daunting but exhilarating task,” Smit says. “I often get asked which puppet is my favourite, but I am unfortunately not able to tell as they all feel a little bit like my own children.”
New York Times theatre critic Ben Brantley called Avenue Q a “...savvy, sassy and eminently likable breakthrough musical”, and compared its potential long-term influence to West Side Story and The King and I.
* The production opens at Pieter Toerien’s Montecasino Theatre on May 10 and runs until 15 July. Avenue Q contains scenes which may be unsuitable for children under 16. Bookings at Computicket.