Review: Avenue Q

Posted on 16 July 2009

I am a great fan of Jim Henson and his chief writer Jerry Juhl. Together they made a profound difference to the world.

Through Sesame Street they brough literacy, numeracy, and a message of inter-racial harmony to the children of the world. This is no small feat when in our information age an education means the difference between being a have or
have not.

Through Fraggle Rock these two then sent messages concerning the attitudes, beliefs, and social skills that lead to world peace. This was done through truthful demonstrations of events and their consequences. Jim and Jerry were always careful to avoid pedantically hammering propaganda into children’s heads.

All of their work spoke of the values of joy, laughter, friendship, kindness, respect, and most importantly love. Never do they deny we all have to face grief and suffering, downs as well as ups. They simply pointed out that by focussing
on these values life will be easier, more enjoyable, and a little better for everyone.

With happy anticipation I flew from Adelaide to Melbourne in order to see the live Austalian touring production of Avenue Q. Avenue Q is NOT a Jim Henson Company production, but it was put together by puppeteers who worked for the Henson Company. This show was a hit on Broadway winning Tonys for Best Musical and Best Book.

The characters were engaging. I was particularly fond of Trekkie Monster. The song and dance numbers were catchy and well choreographed. I was interested to see they didn’t worry about people seeing the puppeteers or their mouths moving. The puppets were brightly coloured, the puppeteers in grey, which was sufficient to make the puppeteers invisible to the audience’s attention. This is the tack I take with my soft toys Mbulu and Kiki for my standup routine.

Some of the puppets had two people manipulating them. This is no easy feat, requiring the puppeteers to know each other, the puppet, and the character of the puppet well enough to bring it smoothly to life. The performers of Avenue Q showed superior skill in this.

I was pleased to see they brought in Australian and New Zealand cast. David James, recently seen in Hollowmen on ABC and playing Harry Secombe in the theatrical production of Ying Tong, was particularly delightful as the character of wannabe comedian Brian. New Zealand musical performer Cherine Peck also did an exceptional job of playing “Gary Coleman”.

The story follows a simple and traditional trajectory: we learn how characters’s lives aren’t working, something changes, then they are all better off. The problem is, I didn’t believe the ending.

The creators seemed to be struggling with some very big issues. On the one hand are the messages sent to the US public by its political, religious, and media institutions. On the otherhand we have what people are genuinely experiencing of their lives.

I do not feel the creators had sufficiently separated flawed messages from experience, nor in the process found any profound insights. The results were the audience came away from Avenue Q feeling the songs were fun and funny, but the show was dissatisfying. And trust me, I did ask others how they felt.

The show began with a song about how everyone’s life sucks on Avenue Q. We then have a song about how we need to accept that everyone’s a little bit racist. Men do not take equal responsibility for their relationships and at no point during the show change this position. Women sing about how we hate the people we love.

The change in the show comes when one character decides he can get his girlfriend back, not by apologising and not by demonstrating his relationship to her is a priority, but by giving her the school she dreamed of founding. He
sings that you help yourself by helping others. But he starts his mission by taking money from a friend who has been forced to live on the street. He does spawn community involvement, but other than Trekkie, none of the characters
really engages with the core issue behind the school, and money alone is seen as the answer.

This is a deeply cynical show. With the final song the theme seems to be: life sucks, you can’t really change anything (except perhaps if you have money), we all have to learn how to cheerfully cope. I found Avenue Q not only disappointing but disturbing.

The whole rags to riches mythos of the US is a hollow dream. The creators of Avenue Q understand this, but don’t understand why, nor offer any alternatives. We simply see the contrast between what people feel they should be and what they are. Without knocking down this mythos and others—all we are going to see is sadness. The wrong measuring stick is being used on the characters of Avenue Q.

Jim Henson and Jerry Juhl understood our true wealth comes from the life affirming relationships we forge with friends, family, community, and the people of the world. Yes, money is important, but it is only one small piece of life’s processes. The characters of Avenue Q barely connect with one another. Sex, money, and alcohol are used as substitutes. Life purpose is seen as something that descends from without, rather than something you choose while loving and living with others.

Because Ghandi believed in a free India, others who also believed joined him in peaceful protest and created a change. India is now a nation free of sovereign rule. Because Martin Luther King Jr believed people of all races could live as respected equals within the US, others who also believed joined him in peaceful protest and created change. All members of US society now have greater access to civil rights. None of these people merely “coped”. They took positive, compassionate action. They sought change through love…AND SUCCEEDED!

On the same day as I saw Avenue Q I saw a single word graffitied on the pavement outside the National Gallery of Victoria. The peach coloured letters were formed in a lovely cursive hand. The word they spelled: Optimism. Cynicism breeds apathy. A bit of optimism can change the world.

Peace and kindness,


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