Avenue Q Ė Third Time Around

 

The Gielgud Theatre, Friday 12 March 2010

 

Review by Emma Shane

©June 2010

 

This is the third time I have seen this show, and as with the other two occasions it is mostly with a different cast. Well two of the live actors cast I had seen previously, namely Sion Lloyd and Delroy Atkinson. But the puppeteering cast were all people I hadnít previously seen in this show, though I have seen Cassidy Janson on stage twice before. Itís strange that she is now the third person Iíve seen as Kate Monster, and the other two were, like Cassidy, actresses I had noticed in other shows. As with the previous two occasions, this was a cast who, as far as one can tell from their resumes, where entirely new to puppetry prior to this show. So again they have had to learn their craft to perform it in this musical.

 

The orchestra strikes up the Opening Avenue Q which most of the company join in singing.Then onto the show proper, as Paul Spicer enters, wearing Princetown on his right arm, What Do You Do With A BA In English. All the puppeteers tonight (as in the previous two performances) perform their puppets with the right hand as their primary hand, so presumably they are all right handed. I had vaguely heard of Paul before (after all he has worked a lot in the West End, and notably with Julie Atherton Ė Londonís original Kate Monster). However, I had never seen Paul on stage until now. He quickly proves to have a splendid stage presence, and seems to connect well with the puppet of Princetown. I thought Jon Robyns and Daniel Boys would be hard acts to follow with this number, but Paul proves himself to be more than capable of doing just that. Interestingly his performance does not seem nearly as stiff as Danielís was, and is more convincing than Jonís. First of the human cast on stage is Sion Lloyd as Brian. Heís very experienced at playing this part, and it shows. He knows exactly what he is doing. Now itís Cassidy Jansonís turn to take to the stage, with Kate Monster on her arm. Right away versatile likeable Cassidy proves she has come up with a winning characterisation. Like Julie Atherton, and indeed Stephanie DíAbruzzo she performs Kate Monster as cute possibly slightly tomboyish awkward young woman (very much a grown-up version of the kinds of character muppeteers such as Fran Brill, Louise Gold, and Karen Prell have done in various television programmes). Yes she would like a boyfriend, but isnít much good at finding one, I found this characterís problem really struck a chord with me. Another human actor who has been doing this show for a long time now is Delroy Atkinson as Gary, he seems to have grown into the role, since I last saw the show. The third human actor is a newcomer to the show Jacqueline Tate, and sheís quite a surprise. Although she is clearly not oriental, with her dark hair she can just about pass as such on stage despite being 5ft6Ē (which seems a little tall for the character). For the purposes of this show however, one can certainly getaway with a bit of artistic licence, after all being a puppet musical in true Muppet tradition the scale is all over the place anyway. It Sucks To Be Me works brilliantly. Itís a great song anyway, and the performers put it across with such verve. Sion has been singing it so long he knows just what to do with it. Cassidy is one of the most likeable, versatile and talented singer-actresses currently in the West End, Jacqueline Tate is the surprise of the piece, fitting in neatly, and singing brilliantly too, keeping completely in the broken English accent.In the middle of this song, of course the last two members of the puppeteering team enter. Tom Parsons is performing Nicky, with Rachel Jerram right-handing. Tom comes across rather well. He has given Nicky of voice that sounds almost like a parody of Jim Hensonís Ernie. This is similar to the way Mark Goldthorpe did it, and I think before him Simon Lipkin. Itís also similar to what Rick Lyon himself did on the original cast album. However, it is clear that Tom and Rachel make a great team with Nicky, they give the character of an infectious vivacity, which reminds one a little of Kermit the Frog. remember what Kermit was like when he used to get really excited on The Muppet Show? Itís like they are trying to recreate a bit of that; Very daring and inventive of them. Paul re-enters, now wearing Rod on his arm. Given how good he was with Princetown I was wondering what he might do with this character, could he make such a different character work? Paul soon proves he is clearly a very versatile performer, easily making the transition to a completely different character. Like Daniel Boys he gives Rod quite an effeminate voice. I think in many ways this does suit the character as a character better than Jon Robynís imitation of Frank Ozís Bert. Although the other way of doing that part is also entirely valid and of course fits in with the whole affectionate parody of Sesame Street theme. If You Were Gay comes across brilliantly. Paul and Tom really seem to connect with each other singing this song. There follows a moving scene between Rod and Christmas Eve, during which she manages not to help him. Princetown wondering what his purpose is comes across noticeably, as usual mainly for the use of the television screens. Then Cassidy enters with Kate Monster on her arm, Paulís Princetown asks her if she and Trekkie Monster are related. Cassidy retorts that she considers that racist with great feeling, after all this is a girl who has previously played Elapha (the girl with green skin) in Wicked.Everyoneís A Little Bit Racist comes across just as well as ever, all the performers did a good job with it, just topped off perfectly by Jacqueline Tateís performance as Christmas Eve. This song is such a powerful message itís good that it still comes across so well.

On meeting the Bad Ideas Bear, Rachel Jerram and Tom Parsons seem to be more or less as good as their various predecessors. In fact the female Bad Ideas Bear seems to suit Rachel rather well. Performing Mrs T, Rachel comes across as less of a character, though her performance is satisfactory.

The Internet Is For Porn comes across as vulgar and rather distasteful, but that presumably is intentional. The ďdancingĒ of Sion Loyd and in particular Delroy Atkinson are noticeable in enhancing that aspect of the song, which has such an irritatingly catchy tune. As for Trekkie Monster, Tom Parsons puppeteers well, and with a wonderful accent that sounds like a parody of Frank Ozís Cookie Monster, mixed in with a dash of Jerry Nelsonís Herry Monster. Unfortunately his assistant puppeteer Rachel Jerram manages to look a little too enthusiastic, wearing a silly grin, which doesnít seem to quite fit with the character, however that is a very minor detail. Good musical theatre performer though she is, Cassidy seems a little swamped with this number, despite the fact that she is its one redeeming feature. Though she fortunately does use a similar accent to the one Julie did to deliver the line ďTrekkie youíre ruining my songĒ, itís not quite as noticeable. Perhaps Julie benefited from the influence of her year playing Sophie in Mamma Mia, which coincided with a legendary lady of television puppetry playing Tanya; For when Julie delivered that line it was almost as though she was trying to do it in the style the her Mamma Mia colleague would have done a character like that in.

Mix Tape is once again a beautiful number, Iím so glad it is still in the show. However, I notice that in an effort to keep the show ďin the presentĒ, a few details in the introduction to the number have changed. Princetown on first approaching Kate says that he as made her ďa mixĒ rather than ďa mix tapeĒ, and what he actually hands her is a CD rather than a tape. This may be more up to date, but it jars with the lyric. Would it really be that out of place to have him hand her a tape? After all some of us do still use audio cassettes. Besides which if one looks around carefully it is still possible to buy the right kind of hi fi system for this (have you seen Premier Editionís catalogue?). In any case these days people also give away redundant hi fi on Freegle (or for that matter Freecycle). So it really would not entirely implausible to have kept it as it was. I do think that generally musicals are better off staying true to their original time period. However, in a way thatís a bit like wanting to see steam locomotives in their proper original liveries; Iíd rather see the engine working never mind what livery it is in, and similarly Iím just glad the song is still here, never mind the dialogue and props introducing it.

At the club Sion takes the spotlight with Iím Not Wearing Underwear Today. His performance of it does not seem quite as vulgar as when he originally did it.Yes I prefer Christopher Fryís disarmingly subtle rendition. However, Sionís performance of the number is entirely satisfactory. He really is one of the better people to have come out of GSA.

Cassidy is a very sweet performer. However, she is also a very versatile one. Like Julie Atherton she has been very sensible in her portrayal of Kate Monster. A cute fairly wholesome girl. The result is that when she comes to perform Lucy The Slut, unlike Rebecca Lock, she does not appear to have too much difficultly in coming up with a totally different character. Like her predecessors in the role of course she walks totally differently when carrying Lucy, a walk which Rachel also does when she takes hold of Lucy during the scene. The gravelley voice Cassidy employs is quite different to anyone elseís voice, and yet it suits the character very well. I think might have been a moment during the number Special when Cassidyís puppetry actually shone. Puppeteer-actors or actor-puppeteers are in a unique position in that they can, if they choose, try to translate movement they would do with their own bodies into movements they do with their hands such that their puppet copies the movement. One of the great examples of this is Louise Gold, who has been known to toss her mane of chestnut curls (when her titan hair was long enough to do so). Give her a puppet with a longish wig, perhaps of a similar nature and she has a distinctive way of flicking her left wrist to make her puppet toss itís head in exactly the same way.Interestingly Cassidy Janson has adopted a very similar trick. She has a way of shaking her own head, such that her long straight hair goes everywhere, which she can also translate into her right hand, so that her puppet can shake its head in exactly the same way. It would make more sense if this occurred with Kate Monster whose hair is similar to Cassidyís, I know the number occurred somewhere in the second half of Act 1, but not the finale scene. Iím just not sure exactly where, or which puppet Cassidy was using. Rachel and Tom make almost as jolly a pair of Bad Ideas Bears as their predecessors. At least Rachel does her one so well, it makes up for the fact that the male Bad Ideas bear seems ofhis three characters to be the one that suits Tom the least, though he doesnít do it badly by any means. They are certainly noticeable urging Kate Monster to get drunk. This of course leads into a piste de resistance for Cassidy and Paul You Can Be as Loud As The Hell You Want (When Youíre Making Love). This number though adult and perhaps shocking to some, is remarkably clever and once again extremely well performed. Nigel Plaskitt has once again done a terrific job of coaching these young puppeteers so that is really does look as if the naked puppets of Princetown and Kate are having it off, or getting it on as they say in America. For two such inexperienced puppeteers it is a truly remarkable performance. Switching puppets and characters Paul continues to deliver a splendid performance ably partnered by Tom for Fantasies Come True. In previous performances Iíve felt it was very much the pair, but this time it is Paul who dominates the number, Tom provides good support, but ultimately it is Paulís number. After all it is Rodís dream. Nevertheless, Tom does make a fine job of the dialogue at the end of the number.

Third time round I picked up even more of the little nuances surrounding Brian and Christmas Eveís wedding. I had not really registered before that Brian is meant to be Jewish (probably more ďnot a Jew just Jew-ishĒ as Jonathan Miller would say). Thus the wedding is a mix of Japanese and Jewish elements, the latter involving the men wearing skull caps, and the addition of a White Canopy.While the former is represented by lanterns. I still didnít really like Delroy Atkinsonís performance of the marriage ceremony, Giles Terra did that so much better. But it was satisfactory.

Paul did a wonderful job as Rod singing My Girlfriend Who Lives In Canada. It was an entirely convincing performance of a man caught up in a lie, and trying desperately to conceal it. He sang brilliantly; and as for his puppetry, well Rodís facial expressions were just excellent. Princetownís nightmare was also well performed by Sion and Jacqueline wearing head masks, this has the addition of an image of Kate Monsterís face which seems to be projected onto the back wall of the theatre. When Cassidy herself returns to the stage armed with Kate Monster, carrying the bouquet, she delivers the line about having caught it in a similar manner to Julie, very much that streak of determination but nevertheless still cute. When Princetown dumps Kate, Cassidy takes us by surprise, for the first time her puppet actually delivers decent facial expression. Until that moment, though Cassidy had not come across as being able to do much with her puppetís facial expressions. However, she does have a very nice way of using her puppetís left arm-rod. Itís quite different to Rebecca Lockís funny little flick (that made it look as though the puppet was flicking itís hair). With Cassidy she is always using her puppetís left arm rod to place one of the puppetís paws on other people, usually giving them an affectionate gentle pat, sometimes shaking hands or trying to give them a sort of hug. In effective she gives Kate Monster slightly luvvie trait. Of course some of the Muppet monsters have been known for their tendency to hug people, remember the legendary tale about when Big Mamma enlivened the 1977 Royal Variety Performance?

 

Act Two opens with Princetown (performed by Paul) alone in his apartment, presently Brian (played by Sion) enters to cheer him up. The other three puppeteers: Cassidy, Rachel and Tom are performing the packing boxes. Entire satisfactory performances, though somehow less remarkable than when they do their individual characters, but here they are all on ensemble duty. Soon after Cassidy returns to the stage with Lucy The Slut on her arm. Her portrayal of Lucy who clearly ridicules any idea that Princetown might actually prefer a monster over her is all her own and somewhat different to either Julie or Rebecca. Also this time, when Cassidy briefly took on the character of Kate asking Lucy to give Princetown a note, I actually noticed this scene and her remark about working in Starbucks. On to Christmas Eve commiserating with The More You Ruv Someone, this number just gets better, for while Jacqui Sanchez improved upon Ann Harada, now we have an even better performance from Jacqueline Tate.

By contrast Delroyís performance of Schedenfraude still isnít as good as Giles Tereraís wonderful version of it, but it is somewhat better than his own earlier performance of it. Nevertheless he still doesnít sell the number very much, but it is satisfactory.

We come to the scene where Kate dropping Princetownís coin hits Lucy on the head. Cassidy of course is voicing both, and puppeteering Lucy, so presumably someone else, possibly Rachel mustíve been puppeteering Kate. Vocally Cassidy has to switch voice styles quickly, but she is a versatile sort of performer very capable of doing so. Some of the great television puppeteers have no doubt had to switch voices pretty quickly in some of their work too. Once again this scene just canít help but make one think a little of The Muppet Showís Vetinarianís Hospital, with that remark from Princetown about Lucyís head.

I Wish I could Go Back To College comes across just as well if not better than previous performances. I donít know if it was because Iíve got more familiar with the song, or if its the current cast, but I found the song surprisingly moving and poignant, especially at the end when they all realise that in fact they donít really want to go back to college, and in reality its time to move on.

Paul is very much the dominant performer in this production of the show, so itís perhaps not too surprising that his and Tomís scene, as Princetown and Nicky respectively leading into The Money Song comes across rather well and noticeably. The Money Song itself is a triumph. Paul may be puppeteering, but like most Arts Ed trained performers he can clearly dance well himself, and certainly moves around the stage very gracefully and rather noticeably, both with his own body and that of the puppet on his hand. This time far fewer hats are actually passed round the auditorium, so most of the audience do not actually have an opportunity to contribute even if they want to. The number seems to be shorter than previously, although that could just be because we were all paying attention to Paul.

Such was the showstopper of The Money Song, that I remember rather less about the final scene Kateís School For Monsters/The Money Song reprise, other than that Paul really is very much the star of the show. I think it was Tom with Nicky on his arm who also brings on Ricky a boyfriend for Rod, or did Rachel do that one? The focus was again on Paul doing Rod. Then thereís the reprise of Thereís A Fine Fine Line, which although a great song didnít have as much impact tonight as on previous occasions. There follows the reprise, by Tom of What Would You Do With A BA In English, this is fun, heís a good singer, but everyoneís attention is focused on Paul with Princetown on his arm.Finally we come to For Now where each puppeteer has a puppet on each hand. Cassidy of course wearing Kate and Lucy, Paul wearing Princetown and Rod, Tom wearing Nicky and Trekkie, and, Rachel wearing the Bad Ideas Bears. The song is once again very upbeat. I canít remember what the lyrics were, though they have been altered a little since the original. It is a grand finale for all the company, but somehow Paul Spicer seems to stand out as their figurehead. Trust Arts Ed!

 

So how did the show compare to the previous two occasions when Iíve seen it. Rather well. It was actually generally better than when I saw it two years ago. It was on a par with when I saw it four years ago, though some of the castís performances were better than their 2006 counterparts and others not perhaps quite as good. Of the live actors Delroy Atkinson was better than when I saw him in 2008, though I still prefer Giles Teraís performance of Gary. Sion Lloyd was actually better than when I had seen him in 2006, and while I marginally prefer Christopher Fry, itís still good to see Sionís performance. Jacqueline Tate is jolly good as Christmas Eve, the best Iíve seen, though the others were pretty good too.

As with the previous two performances the four young puppeteers have talent and have been well taught, but are clearly inexperienced, with regards to their puppetry. Rachel Jerrram sometimes appears a little too enthusiastic, which is a bit awkward as she is mainly on assistant puppeteer duties, which really need her to not draw too much attention to herself (her ďGuildford GrinĒ does not help matters. However she does come into her own with that female Bad Ideas Bear, the best performance of that Iíve seen. Tom Parsons does a generally good job, though he got more than a little overshadowed by Paul Spicer in places. Tomís great strength is his abilities in the vocal mimicry department, his Trekkie Monster makes one think Frank Oz, with perhaps a dash of the great Jerry Nelson, while his Nicky automatically puts one in mind of the late great Jim Henson, and possible a bit of Steve Whitmire. Both of these are just what one needs in this affectionate Sesame Street style parody. I was expecting perhaps rather a lot from Cassidy Janson. Iíd seen her twice before on stage, once in a pantomime of Beauty And The Beast where her winning cute performance of Beauty was wonderful to watch. Then at Lauderdale House in her own cabaret where she displayed a maturity beyond her years and considerable versatility. Her versatility as an actress is a big plus when it comes to this job, because of having to do two completely different characters. Her Lucy The Slut is an excellent vocal performances, while Kate Monster is voiced just the way I think suits that character best, very much like Julie Atherton when she did the role Cassidy does it with an approximation of a certain kind of cute-girl voice so frequently used on Sesame Street (and other televison puppet shows) by such luminaries as: Fran Brill, Louise Gold, Karen Prell and of course Stephanie DíArbruzzo herself. However Cassidy while she clearly can puppeteer to some extent, in the end doesnít really come across as all that comfortable doing this new skill. It could just be that she is very inexperienced, and itís possible some of her fellow-cast members may have been in the show a little longer. The big problem is that she does very little with her puppetís facial expressions and with such nice flexible puppets like these there are plenty of opportunities for that, which could add so much more to the characterisation. Nevertheless her little trick of having her puppet shake its head just like Cassidy herself would do is a nice touch, as is her Kate Monsterís tendency to put her paws on everyone. Itís noticeable that each actress-puppeteer who Iíve seen do Kate Monster has brought her own little mannerisms to the role. Iím glad to have seen Cassidyís efforts, she is a fine musical theatre actress, although I am not sure if puppetry is really her forte, but maybe with experience that might improve. Also if anyone wants to revive Nunsense with her versatility she (as well as Julie Atherton) would be a great choice for Sister Mary Amnesia (and that is musical theatre part that really requires a puppeteer). By far the best of the quartet is Paul Spicer. He clearly has a lot of talent and potential, he can sing, dance and act, and is puppetry seems pretty decent too, especially when you consider how new he is to this skill (judging by his resume he does not appear to have puppeteered before). His performance was really impressive and very much the star of the show. Interestingly he trained at The Arts Educational School, an institution which over thirty five years ago trained (though not in puppetry) one of the actual Muppeteers, a lady who should perhaps be recognised as the West Endís original Musical-Theatre-Performer-AND-puppeteer. She (currently once again gracing the stage of Theatre Royal Drury Lane) has been described as being able to ďsing, dance and act with or without a puppetĒ, and itís good to see an up and coming performer from the same school also making a mark as a puppeteer in Avenue Q. All in all a great fun show, it may not be to everyoneís taste, but I thoroughly enjoyed it once again. I just like this show.

 

 

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Off Site Links:

 

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

 

 Agency Licensing Campaign (article in The Stage): http://www.thestage.co.uk/news/newsstory.php/31022/theatre-stars-back-campaign-for-talent-agency, and Online Petition (which anyone who supports it can sign): http://www.gopetition.com/petition/41085.html , seeing as Cassidy Janson is among the performers supporting this worthy campaign.

 

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