Avenue Q – Second Time Round


Noel Coward Theatre, Wednesday 28 May 2008


Review by Emma Shane

© June 2008


Going to see a long running West End musical one has enjoyed once for a second time can be a worry, will one like it as much second time, and how will a different cast compare to the one seen first? As with the original London cast the current Avenue Q cast had little or no experience of puppetry prior to undertaking to learn the craft in order to perform it in this musical. Thus as puppeteers they are relatively unknown, although Daniel Boys and Rebecca Lock are becoming moderately well known as musical theatre singer-actors. Knowing that prior to learning puppetry to join the Avenue Q cast, Rebecca had previously been in Mary Poppins where (as first cover for the title role) she almost certainly sang a great competitive duet with a noteworthy puppeteer; I was particularly interested to see how she would fair trying her own hand at puppetry.


The curtain went up a little later (it should have gone up at eight, but it seemed to be nearly ten past). There was a brief announcement that the role of Christmas Eve would be played by the alternate, Jacqui Sanchez. Then Daniel Boys wandered on with Princetown on his arm, What Do You Do With A BA In English. Like Jon Robyns before him Daniel sang it well, in a convincing manner. He makes a success of acting the part. However, I couldn’t help but be concerned that his puppetry seemed very stiff. Seeing the ‘For Rent’ sign heralds the entrance of the first of our human actors, Christopher Fry as Brian, and of course another puppeteer, Rebecca Lock with Kate Monster on her arm. It’s soon clear that Christopher’s acting looks like his Brian would have fitted right in to Sesame Street itself, he makes the character very much his own. Rebecca Lock’s Kate Monster too is very different to Julie Atherton, and vocally at least quite different to Stephanie D’Arbruzzo. Rebecca makes the character less of the cute sometimes slightly tomboyish girl, and into a more grown up and worldly wise woman. It’s also immediately clear that Kate Monster is very interested in Princetown as a possible date, she’s desperate to get a boyfriend. We soon meet Gary played by Delroy Atkinson, his performance too is quite different to Giles Terera, and it can take time to adjust. It Sucks To Be Me is a great song. Rebecca in particular brings her own characterisation of Kate to the song, one with a real feeling of frustration. Mark Goldthorpe enters with Nicky on his arm along with Mary Doherty right-handing, it’s soon apparent that Mark is going for the conventional with this character, making it a clear, affectionate parody of Sesame Street’s Ernie. The pair make a good job of providing a live demonstration of how puppeteers really do have to work is very close proximity to each other, and sometimes have to practically wrap themselves around their colleagues. Their performance gives a real insight into that. At this point Daniel re-enters with Rod on his arm. Again his portrayal is quite different to Jon Robyns, instead of doing a pastiche of Frank Oz’s Bert, Daniel has elected to make this character quite different, he gives the character a very effeminate voice, one that is stereotypically “Gay”. I wasn’t too sure whether that was a good idea or not. Yes we all know Rod is a closet homosexual, but is that voice a convincing one for the character of an investment banker? If You Were Gay comes across quite well nevertheless. Daniel next appears with Princetown on his arm to wonder what his Purpose is, this got quite a laugh from the audience, though that was more for the audio visual screens with their obvious parody of educational programmes,  more than anything else. And then the other three puppeteers return to the stage to bring the moving boxes to life. Very good fun.

After this Rebecca enters with Kate Monster on her arm, clearly trying to flirt with Princetown, at least until he asks her if she and Trekkie are related. Everyone’s A Little Bit Racist comes across just as well as it did last time, even if most of the performers do their parts quite differently. However, one person who does stand out here, is Jacqui Sanchez’s Christmas Eve. Around this time we also meet the Bad Ideas Bears. Mark Goldthorpe and Mary Doherty certainly make the two bears into real distinctive characters, more so even than Simon Lipkin and Clare Foster did, even though I think that technically Simon and Clare did a better job with those bears.

Teaching-Assistant Kate Monster receives the news she is to teach a whole class by herself, in a manner that suggests she is thrilled because it could be such a good career move for her, whereas before when Julie Atherton performed her the emphasis was more on what she could bring to it for the benefit of the children she would be teaching. This is characteristic of the way Rebecca has made the character a bit different, and yet somehow it still works well. Leading into that irritatingly catchy song The Internet Is For Porn, a number which most of the men in the theatre seemed to be enjoying (both on the stage and in the audience). The majority of the women were not laughing at it, however, tuneful though the song is. I rather missed the lovely way Julie Atherton delivered the line “Trekkie your ruining my song”, it had been a manner so wonderfully reminiscent of several legendary female muppeteers, and a certain kind of cute but determined character they tended to perform. Rebecca however, doesn’t give the line that memorable tone, because it wouldn’t fit her portrayal of Kate Monster.

Mix Tape however, is as beautiful a number as ever, whereas Julie did the number with a sense of wonderment (that Princetown might be in love with her), Rebecca makes it much more a sense of satisfaction (at having nearly got her man). Both interpretations suit this beautiful song very well.

At the club, and as Brian it is Christopher Fry’s turn to come into his own, with I’m  Not Wearing Underwear Today. Though Scion Lloyd did an excellent job with this song, in many ways I kind of like Christopher’s version better, because he gives the number a certain disarming subtlety, such that it doesn’t come across as so vulgar. He also makes Brian as less of an out and out extrovert, but more as someone who is trying to be an extrovert comedian , but who hasn’t quite got there, and probably won’t, this is actually rather convincing, after all these characters are meant to reflect ordinary everyday folk, aren’t they?

Special is Rebecca’s opportunity to take hold of a different character, Lucy The Slut. Unfortunately this is the one bit where her individual interpretation of Kate Monster is in danger of backing her into a corner. Because she’s made Kate quite flirtatious, and given her a more grown-up voice than Julie or Stephanie, the problem is how to make Lucy the bigger flirt? and quite different? Like Julie before her the way she walks is particularly noticeable when carrying this puppet, so that’s presumably the way it’s been choreographed. She did her best to give the character a different voice, deeper, smoky, husky perhaps, but clearly had some difficulty trying to come up with a good characterisation, at least for the musical number, nevertheless in the dialogue that followed, she did a pretty good job, particularly with Lucy’s rather cutting comments about dating monsters. Mark and Mary as the Bad Ideas Bears prove to be just as jolly as Simon and Clare were before them, in fact they are very noticeable, especially at urging Kate Monster to get drunk. This leads into one of the funniest and most adult of all the numbers in the entire show, You Can Be As Loud As The Hell You Want When Your Making Love. It is with this number that Daniel and Rebecca score a triumph. Nigel Plaskitt has evidently done an excellent job of coaching them is in this notable scene. Elsewhere in the show there are moments where their puppetry is very stiff and sometimes ragged, but in this scene alone they really demonstrate what they are capable of achieving as puppeteers. For once the audience’s attention is totally focused on the puppets not the puppeteers, and; Yes they jolly well did make it look as though the naked puppets of Kate and Princetown were having it off.  It really is an incredibly convincing performance; and all the more amazing coming from two relatively inexperienced puppeteers. 

On to Fantasies Come True, Daniel and Mark acquit themselves reasonable well, although somehow I found myself paying slightly more attention to the set than to them. I certainly followed the plot of Brian and Christmas Eve’s wedding rather better second time round, whether that was due to the cast, or simply my being better acquainted with the show I don’t know. for example this time I “got it” over the matter of Princetown’s little nightmare. I wasn’t as keen on the way Delroy Anderson delivered the marriage ceremony, it came across as rather precocious, of course that is one way of playing the character, but I preferred Giles Terra’s more philosophical manner.

I couldn’t help noticing that whereas when Julie played Kate getting the bouquet it came across that Kate was quite a Tomboy with a streak of ambition, Rebecca plays her as a tough flirtiest woman who will do anything to snare her man (a bit like Miss Piggy actually). Far more determination in that department. Daniel’s efforts at Rod’s My Girlfriend Who Lives In Canada were on the whole reasonable, and made it quite obvious that Rod is in fact bluffing. The bit where Nicky was thrown out of the apartment was pretty convincing.

Rebecca closes the first act with the beautiful There’s A Fine Fine Line, which she makes her own, doing it in a style somewhat different to her predecessors. In fact she rather cleverly puts a little bit of a twist onto the song. In every other version I’ve heard it sounds as if the woman singing it is cross with the man for wasting her time. Yet here it almost comes across as if she’s cross that the man thinks she’s a waste of his time.


Act 2 finds Daniel performing Princetown, being cheered up by Brian (played by Christopher) and company There’s Life Outside Your Apartment. A jolly number which gets the second act off to a good start. It’s a number typical of this show, in pasticheing Joe Raposo. Just before this, Brian attempts to cheer Princetown up with a joke for which he has not yet found a punchline, for some strange reason this joke made me think of the account in Roger Law’s autobiography of trying to do a French tuna fish advertisement (in Paris in the middle of a heatwave); something to do with rather well endowed girls or fish?

Kate Monster’s anger with Princetown over his “one Knight stand” with Lucy is taken quite differently. When Julie played it is came across as irritation that Princetown was choosing between her and Lucy, but with Rebecca playing her it comes across as out and out vicious jealously. Very like the kind of jealously Miss Piggy used to display to any female (human or muppet who came between her and Kermit, which let’s not forget included Annie Sue). Christmas Eve commiserates with her, The More You Ruv Someone, here Jacqui Sanchez comes across very well, and the song is a slight improvement on its earlier version. By contrast Schedenfrude, though still a good song didn’t come across as well. I think it’s because of Delroy Anderson’s rather precocious portrayal of Gary. It makes it a bit unconvincing when he tries to sing the practical philosophical numbers.  But it’s not bad by any means.

Again the scene where Kate knocks Lucy out by dropping the coin still comes across as extremely reminiscent of Vetinarians Hospital. All the more so given Rebecca’s portrayal of Kate, which reminds one a little of one extremely tough determined nurse in that legendary skit (Nurse Piggy of course). And let’s not forget that in the course of her theatrical career Rebecca is known to have sung the odd duet with one of the assistant puppeteers from that very sketch.

I Wish I Could Go Back To College comes across even better than before, all the cast perform it with such conviction, and make it their own vocally at least. Again the puppetry is somewhat variable. I couldn’t help noticing that all four puppeteers are very much getting the acting performances with their puppets via them doing the acting themselves. Nevertheless when it comes to acting, Daniel and Mark do a pretty convincing job with Princetown and Nicky on their arms, over the realisation that when you help others you feel better about yourself. This leads into The Money Song, and most of the cast get involved in passing the hats round. They say time flies when you’re having fun, and this number certainly went with a swing, even if Christopher Fry working the stalls did seem to have a minor moment of forgetting the exact positioning of his choreography. But that was a very minor detail. The final scene beginning with Kate’s School For Monsters/The Money Song Reprise, and then going into the reprises of There’s A Fine Fine Line, and What Do You Do With A BA In English finds all four puppeteers working flat out switch characters in very quick succession. Bringing on characters, taking them off, changing voices. During this final scene between them the quartet perform a total of at least ten characters, and two of those needing an assistant puppeteer. Thus on average everyone has about three different jobs to do! By the time they reach the final number For Now each of their has a character on each hand, thus Rebecca wears both Kate And Lucy, Daniel wears Princetown and Rod, Mary wears both Bears, and Mark wears Trekkie and Nicky. It must be quite a feat for such inexperienced performers to wear two puppets at the same time! Look back to the behind the scenes photographs of The Muppet Show, and you’ll notice that the more experienced puppeteers would be seen in big mass Muppet production numbers wearing two puppets each, but the less experienced performers would wear only one (on his or her primary hand).


So overall how did the show compare to when I first saw it nearly two years earlier. Well it actually compared very well. With any long running show a new cast do need to make it their own. The performers need to be able to bring their own interpretation to it. Sometimes their idea may not work the best for the part, for all sorts of reasons, but it shouldn’t stop them trying. Because if they were just to play the characters as carbon paper copies of the originals then the characters would soon become rather bland and two dimensional instead of three dimensional. Within the parameters of a given part, like actors, puppeteers need the freedom to create the characters in their own way to fulfil a given role. For example although I wasn’t too keen on the Television programme Muppets Tonight, one thing I really admired about that show was the fact that the newer principal puppeteers on it, people like Kevin Clash and Leslie Carrea were, while filling ‘classic’ needs within the show, given the opportunity to create their own characters. For example Leslie Carrea’s Spamala Hamderson was very much Miss Piggy’s rival, fulfilling a position on Muppets Tonight that Louise Gold’s Annie Sue had done on The Muppet Show; and yet the two characters, despite being small attractive Pig-singer-rivals, were in character totally different. And those differences were very much a reflection on the kind of character, within that broad role, that their individual puppeteers would be best suited to doing. Whereas more recently when Eric Jacobson has taken over Fozzie Bear, how much better it would have been if Eric had been given the opportunity to develop his own Bear comedian as an eventual successor to Fozzie instead of actually trying to do the role like Frank Oz did it.

Similarly each Avenue Q character fulfils a particular function. How the individual puppeteer or actor captures that must depend on them.

One person who must have a great understanding of how each performer needs to make the role their own is surely Jacque Sanchez, after all she is the show’s Assistant Resident Director. Her portrayal of Christmas Eve is excellent. She really made the character stand out as a personality. Christopher Fry as Brian also did a great job. He was not as much of a buffoon as Sion Lloyd had been, but in many ways I thought his subtler approach actually worked better (though Scion had played the part perfectly well, and with a surprising degree of friendliness). However, sometimes it takes a very good actor indeed to pretend to be bad. Well Christopher is Guildhall trained, so he knows exactly what he is doing with the part. He also fitted so well into the atmosphere of the show, one could really imagine him as one of the “Grown Up Live Actors” in a production of Sesame Street. The least satisfactory of the three Live Actors is Delroy Atkinson, possibly a product of his training. Although his rather precocious portrayal of Gary is a perfectly reasonable take on what a person with that kind of background would be like, I couldn’t imagine that character as a Live Actor on Sesame Street.  Not that this necessarily matters. I much preferred Giles Terra’s excellent performance in the role. However there is nothing fundamentally wrong with Delroy’s take on his part, and he has every right to do it that way if that’s what works for him; but I thought Giles Terra did it better. Moving on to the puppeteers, we have a similar situation with Daniel Boys’s Rod, I felt that the way he did Rod was too stereotyped as obviously Gay, but again  if that is what works for him with the character, then that is the way he must do it. He did do a good job with Princetown, very much comparable with Jon Robyns. I was pleasantly surprised (particularly given his training) and actually quite impressed by Mark Goldthorpe’s versatility. He switched easily between his three characters: Nicky, Trekkie Monster, and the Male Bad Ideas Bear, and managed to give them all some characterisations that seemed to fit in very well with the show. His portrayals and Nicky and Trekkie are out and out exactly what you would expect to find on Avenue Q. But doing things in the expected way (especially when so many of the others are trying to do things differently) is no bad thing, especially when that evidently works for him. He seemed to have a real feel for his puppets, though he is still very inexperienced. Mary Doherty also did a surprisingly good job as their varsity squad puppeteer (could that owe more to her schooling than subsequent training), taking hold of everyone else’s puppets whenever they were doing other characters, right-handing for both Nicky and Trekkie, making a satisfactory job of Kate Monster’s boss Mrs T, and doing her own Female Bad Ideas Bear with great glee. In all a reasonable successor to Clare Foster. When I saw the show before, one puppeteer who really stood out was Julie Atherton. Her successor is Rebecca Lock. Of the two of them Julie’s puppetry was just that bit better (not least because she connected to well with her puppet and was truly beginning to grasp how to channel her performance into her hand). Though Rebecca does do very well, and one has to remember that like everyone else she inexperienced. I also well remember the way Julie voiced Kate Monster, it was such a classic voice and characterisation so reminiscent of at least four great ladies of television puppetry (and one of those was someone whom Julie and Rebecca have both managed to appear with on the stage of Prince Edward Theatre!). Nevertheless what Rebecca does do is make the part of Kate Monster her own. She brings a characterisation to the role that is her own. It’s not what one expects, and there are even moments when it seems to back her into a corner, and yet not only is it what works for her, she ultimately succeeds in bringing a new interpretation to this character. Her Kate Monster is not cute, but she demonstrates that the character does not have to be done as a cute girl. The character can be more of a tough woman desperate to get a man. As for her puppetry, well given her inexperience she made a pretty good job of it. One thing I particularly noticed was that she gave Kate Monster her own special little mannerism. A distinctive little way of moving her left arm-rod, so that the puppet looked like it’s left hand was flicking back it’s hair, in a rather seductive way. I don’t remember Julie doing a movement like that (she may have done of course), but the way Rebecca does this seems quite distinctive. Many of our great television puppeteers, and this is particularly true of the Sesame Street puppeteers, have their own special mannerisms, which they tend to incorporate into their characters. Examples include: the peculiar way Jerry Nelson wiggles his knuckles to make the puppet wriggle its eyebrows (or it’s forehead if it doesn’t have eyebrows); and the distinctive manner in which Louise Gold flicks her left wrist to make her puppet toss it’s hair (which is actually uncannily like the way a certain West End actress would toss her titan tresses- at least when they are long enough to toss). These are mannerisms, which tend to develop early in a puppeteer’s career (well The English Muppet was already using that funny flick of her left wrist quite early on during her days on The Muppet Show), are so uniquely noticeable, that puppetry enthusiasts in general and Muppet-fans in particular have been able to use these traits to identify characters as being performed by particular puppeteers. It appears that Rebecca Lock could well have picked up the art of developing a mannerism of her own. Interestingly, although Rebecca is clearly new to puppetry, shortly before joining the cast of Avenue Q, she appeared in an all star Sondheim gala at the Novello Theatre, the Side By Side By Sondheim 30th Anniversary Gala, where coincidentally she got to sing a powerful duet from West Side Story with one of the actual Muppet Show & Sesame Street muppeteers! admittedly it was not a puppetry number, but still what a lovely coincidence!

                I couldn’t help noticing tonight that although ultimately, taking into account their inexperience, all four puppeteers did a reasonable job, and could well have some potential as puppeteers, they are all still at the stage of being actors do can do a bit with a puppet, and even when they have a puppet on their hand they are still acting with the whole of the rest of their bodies, including very much with their faces. Their eyes had a strong tendency to focus out towards the audience or to whichever of their colleagues they were interacting with, rather than focusing either down or on their puppet. Maybe it’s the way they’ve been taught to do it. But I found this just a little distracting. On television of course puppeteers tend to be out of sight (under sets or below the camera’s line of vision). However, if you watch the behind-the-scenes footage, its noticeable that film and TV puppeteers tend to be looking down focusing firmly on their monitors; and the rest of their bodies are doing very little in terms of characterisation their whole performance is focused into their hands. Is that just because they are on television? No, a few months ago, in a cabaret in Maidenhead, I witnessed Spitting Image’s two Leading Puppeteers, Louise Gold and Nigel Plaskitt perform. What stood out was that with both of them was the focus on the characters in their hands. Nigel did The Queen (with Louise voicing), and the focus was totally on what he was doing with his right hand. While when Louise sang Rainbow Connection as a duet with a puppet performed by herself, it was noticeable that when singing as herself she would look at the audience and be quite lively, but when the puppet was singing her eyes were on her puppet, and her performance was channelled into her left hand. Is that because they are puppeteers rather than actors? Well Nigel started as an actor; while Louise has spent most of the last thirty years alternating between acting and puppetry, so it’s probably just that those two are very experienced at puppetry. Well even great puppeteers has to start somewhere. With The Muppet Show Series 2 finally released on DVD, soon to be followed by Series 3, more people have the chance to see what puppeteers like Louise Gold and Kathryn Mullen were like when they first started, back in those days their puppetry was far from being fluid and polished, though it soon improved. Similarly this quartet all do well given that they are inexperienced in terms of puppetry. With regards to characterisation they make the roles their own. Overall the show is just as good fun as before, different yes, but the differences serve to demonstrate just how well show works with a different cast. To be sure Avenue Q is still something special, and a great night out.




Off Site Links:


Avenue Q, London Production, Official Site: http://www.avenueqthemusical.co.uk/


My review of seeing Rebecca Lock in Mary Poppins (where her fellow cast-members included Louise Gold): http://www.qsulis.demon.co.uk/Website_Louise_Gold/Mary_Poppins_Review.htm


My review of seeing Rebecca Lock in the Side By Side By Sondheim 30th Anniversary Gala (where she sang a duet with Louise Gold): http://www.qsulis.demon.co.uk/Website_Louise_Gold/SBSBS_30_Gala_Review.htm





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