In the opening lines of Avenue Q, young graduate Princeton wonders: "What do I do with a BA in English ... I can't pay the bills yet, cos I have no skills yet". The disjoint between a liberal arts education and the job market has been discussed ad nauseum by educators and administrators, but became disarmingly clear when voiced by a furry muppet who is seeking his purpose in life and battling unemployment and poverty in the meantime. The stories in Avenue Q all shared this clear vision of life and humanity. Avenue Q was about a young man looking for himself. It was about finding love in a complex world. It was about those to whom fate had dealt an imperfect hand, but who made the best of it nonetheless. Its stroke of genius was its irreverent riff on the format, characters and music of Sesame Street, updated with a dash of cheek and disillusionment. If Sesame Street offered us a world that was unrealistic and unspoilt, Avenue Q offered the world in its whole, unvarnished form, packaged in a disingenuously pretty wrapper.
Set in a fictitious New York City area of low rents and dubious reputation, Avenue Q was inhabited by the new archetype characters of our generation: the closeted gay banker, the spunky and dateless singleton, the Asian-American lady who has two Masters degrees and an unemployed husband, the internet porn-addict and the has-been celebrity. In the style of Sesame Street, humans, muppets and monsters all lived together, which laid the background for the song Everyone's a Little Bit Racist (which was exactly as it sounds).
The combination of cheesy melodies and insidiously cynical lyrics proved to be a gem. Beneath the veneer of throwaway flippancy, Avenue Q offered pointed perspectives on our cultural milieu. Songs like It Sucks To Be Me and The Internet Is for Porn captured defining characteristics of the current generational ethos. But it all went down easily, the way a cocktail cloaks its alcoholic punch with sweet and fruity flavours. The infectious, foot-tapping tunes wormed their way into our hearts even as their more hard-hitting lyrics registered in our minds. A song about heartbreak was entitled There's a Fine, Fine Line (between love and a waste of your time), and it left no room for false sentimentality. Even relatively less acerbic songs like The More You Ruv Someone took a dig at the Asian-American accent and its tendency to mix up its "r"s and "l"s.
Although the script was strongly American in context, the knowing, cheeky tone translated well to our local audience. Kate Monster, embodying the smart modern woman, threw out snarky one-liners that were delivered just right. The cuter-than-cute Bad Idea Bears (whose role was to egg-on the characters into making bad choices) were crowd favourites. Before Avenue Q, I had not seen any Esplanade audience heave with laughter the way it did that night, perhaps proving that humour based on cynicism is universally appealing.
There were moments that required some suspension of disbelief. The human puppeteers sang and emoted onstage even as they manipulated their puppets, playing the roles of singer, actor and puppeteer simultaneously. This took some getting used to initially. Some corny plot devices were employed, clearly designed to enable a happy ending. For instance, it was revealed that the porn addict Trekkie Monster possessed and was willing to donate $10 million to build a School for Monsters, and the floozy Lucy The Slut became a born-again Christian after being hit by a penny that Kate Monster threw off the Empire State Building.
But this was merely proof that Avenue Q did not take itself that seriously. Its ultimate message was about as optimistic as the finale song For Now, which warned that all things in life - except for death and taxes - were only temporary. This detached message was perhaps a cop-out and the sole jarring note in an otherwise intoxicating journey of musical theatre. But, then again, this ambivalence has been appreciated by many audience members who relish not being preached to.
The entire production was executed to a high degree of professionalism (discounting a brief opening-night muppet malfunction). The cast was worked hard, with each actor often playing more than one muppet character. The two leads had vocals that were arguably stronger than those of the West End cast, which I had the privilege of watching in Nov 2007. Carla Guevara-Laforteza was a real joy to watch and listen to. She handled the octave-busting score for Kate Monster with sass and pathos, while also embodying the seductive, throaty drawl of Lucy The Slut. Her rendition of There's a Fine, Fine Line surpassed the original Broadway cast recording with its deep-felt emotion. Frenchie Dy, who played the Asian-American character Christmas Eve, was slightly less clear in her diction, but then it's hard to criticise an actor for enunciation when her lines on the page read read "ruv" for "love" and "leecycrabers" for "recyclables".
Words like "fabulously furry fun-filled romp" understate the sharp edge of Avenue Q, but describe perfectly its sweeter side.
Deanne Tan's First Impression
Avenue Q is an irreverent re-conceptualisation of Sesame Street, seen through the eyes of young adults who have experienced their first disillusionment with life. In the opening lines, young graduate Princeton wonders: "What do I do with a BA in English ... I can't pay the bills yet, cos I have no skills yet". Set in a fictitious New York City area of low rents and dubious reputation, Avenue Q is inhabited by the new archetype characters of our generation: the gay banker who is in the closet, the spunky and dateless Kate Monster, the Asian-American lady who has two Masters degrees and an unemployed husband, and the internet porn addict, Trekkie Monster. In the style of Sesame Street, humans, muppet puppets and monster puppets live in the same neighbourhood, providing rich material for the song Everyone's a Little Bit Racist (which is exactly as it sounds). Although the tone is uniquely American, the knowing, cheeky humour translated well to our local context. Catchy, chirpy tunes combined with cynical lyrics to create gems like It Sucks To Be Me and The Internet Is For Porn.
Before Avenue Q, I had not seen any Esplanade audience heave with laughter the way it did last night. The cast simultaneously worked the puppets and sang to a high degree of professionalism that was definitely on par with (if not arguably stronger than) their counterparts in the West End cast (which I had the good fortune to experience in Nov 2007). Tickets are not cheap, but they are cheaper than getting on a plane to London or New York, so go see it.
Kenneth Kwok's First Impression (****)
I expected Avenue Q to be rude, brazen and funny as hell which it certainly was - with song titles like Everyone's A Little Bit Racist and The Internet Is For Porn and characters called Lucy the Slut and the Bad Idea Bears, what did you expect? But it also had a lot more heart than I thought it would: musical numbers like I Wish I Could Go Back To College and There's a Fine, Fine Line ("There's a fine, fine line between a lover and a friend; There's a fine, fine line between reality and pretend; And you never know 'til you reach the top if it was worth the uphill climb") were surprisingly moving. The characters may well be portrayed by colourful Jim Henson-type puppets which is a little disorienting at first but you quickly get over that and start to really care about them, whether it's the young college grad, Princeton who is searching for his place in the world, Kate, the idealistic kindergarten teacher-aide who wants to build a school for furry monsters like herself so that they won't be picked on for being different or Rod, the closeted gay Republican who cannot accept his feelings for his roommate and best friend.
This production, brought in by the Singapore Repertory Theatre, may not be by the original Broadway team but production standards are nonetheless top-notch and the largely Filipino ensemble cast is strong, with Carla Guevara-Laforteza (Kate Monster / Lucy the Slut) delivering a particularly impressive performance both as a singer and an actor.
Ratings out of 5, based on
Practitioner's Vision / Reviewer's Response: ***** = Transcendent /