Richmond Theatre, Friday 4 March 2011
Review by Emma Shane
Sixteen years ago I saw a compilation revue (of Noel Coward and Cole Porter songs) in this very theatre, called Noel/Cole: Let’s Do It. There was one performer who really stood out among the cast, a tall, loud, redheaded singer-actress who has a wining way with Cole Porter’s songs. Sitting in the auditorium reading the programme I was intrigued by one thing about that singer’s resume, a paragraph almost casually tacked onto the end contained a bunch of credits as a film and TV puppeteer, including Sesame Street. Until that night I had never considered the performers underneath puppet characters. Although I had watched The Muppet Show. I had never thought about it in any great detail. But now curious to know more, about a rather striking singer I started to look out for her work on television (she in fact turned out to be a bit of a legend in the field of film & TV puppetry). As a result I came across Sesame Street, a programme I had not actually watched before. I soon discovered that the delightful humour of that programme works on many levels, and I particularly enjoyed its affectionate educational send ups of other entertainment programmes and performers (Miss Ethel Mermaid singing I Get A Kick Out Of U being one of my favourites, and a monster singing Anyone’s Nose being another, both for obvious reasons). I also discovered that there is much to be appreciated in watching the beautiful artistry of the craft of those skilled puppeteers (of which Sesame Street after all has always had the best). That chance discovery from reading a performer’s resume led me to watching wonderful art-forms and genres I would never otherwise have discovered, and one of the results of that is that I ended up wanting to see and enjoy Avenue Q. Since this musical is an affectionate parody of Sesame Street, I am sure that ones appreciation of it is much greater if one has actually an amount of the television programme it is sending up. In a way this makes it particularly special to be seeing Avenue Q at Richmond Theatre.
The show opens with a voice-over track of the title song. We can’t tell if it is the cast we are seeing off stage or a backing track, though my perception was that it might have been the latter, a shame, because I much prefer performers and orchestras performing live. Presently Adam Pettigrew enters wearing Princeton on his arm. As with his predecessors whom I’ve seen in the role: Jon Robyns, Daniel Boyes, and, Paul Spicer, he seems quite an engaging performer. Singing-wise his performance of What Do You Do With A BA In English seems to be comparable, though I thought the tempo of the song seemed a little faster than I remember it. The lyrics are wonderful, and so very telling, really they mean something to anyone who is hunting for a job, let alone their purpose in life. In times of high unemployment some of those lyrics about a “useless degree” and “can’t pay the bills yet, cause I have no skills yet” among others will resonate with more sectors of society than just those in their twenties that it is aimed at.
Soon it’s time to meet the first of the human cast too, as Edward Judge enters as Brian. right away he makes the character pretty much his own. Perhaps not quite as good as Scion Lloyd, but entirely satisfactory. He is also looks even more stereotypically modern American than either or the other two men who I’ve seen play the part. Then it is Rachel Jerram’s turn to make her first entrance, with Kate Monster on her arm. Rachel may not have the refined style of Julie Atherton or Cassidy Janson, however she quickly proves to be fairly capable of making Kate Monster her own, and doing an adequate job. Her characterisation of Kate is not quite the cute female possibly slightly tomboyish, awkward young character that Julie Atherton and Cassidy Janson did, a character who was so obviously derived from the kinds of characters that Fran Brill, Louise Gold, Karen Prell and of course Stephanie D’Arbruzzo have all done so many variations of on a variety of Henson productions (including, naturally Sesame Street). However, her portrayal is not completely different from that in the way that Rebecca Lock’s was. It is more as though maybe she can’t quite do that particular type of character exactly as stereotype so she has sort of come up with her own variation of it. Next on we have another human actor, Matthew J Henry is playing Gary. he too seems somewhat different to the previous inhabitants of the role, and initially I found his manner and the funny walk he had given his character so different as to not be convincing, because I am used to the way Giles Terera and Delroy Atkinson did it. We soon get to meet the third human character, this time the only person I had seen before in the same role in the show itself Jacqueline Tate as Christmas Eve. She was striking last time, just about passing for oriental, which of course she does again. It Sucks To Be Me is a great song, but today I felt that Toby Higgins as Musical Director took it a bit fast. Nevertheless it is still a song very full of feeling, and one whose sentiments become even more significant during harsh economic times. Halfway through the song we meet two more major puppet characters Nicky and Rod, performed tonight by Chris Thatcher and Adam Pettigrew. Chris has been in the Avenue Q company for a while, and it is clear he knows what he is doing with Nicky. He has Katharine Moraz as his assistant puppeteer, and they seem to make a good team. I have noticed with pretty much all the performances of Avenue Q that I have seen that the pair who have to work together to perform Nicky, and who also perform individually the Bad Ideas Bears tend to develop the ability to work quite well together as a team. Adam does a fairly straightforward accent for Rod, probably what you would expect for a Merchant Banker. It is not particular Gay stereotype, though there is a very slight hint of that in it with his delivery of some lines. Similarly it is not an out and out parody of Sesame Street’s Bert, but again there is a little hint of that too. In the end he has done the character in the way that is right for him, which is what any good performer should do. Meanwhile Chris Thatcher’s accent for Nicky is an entirely conventional regular American guy. It was not obviously parodying Jim Henson or Steve Whitmire, but as usual with that character there can’t help but be some hint of that. These two characters come into their own with If You Were Gay. Tonight this song works rather well. It is not exactly a competitive duet, but there is an element of that in it, which I had not thought of being there before. There follows the first scene between Rod and Christmas Eve when she manages not to help him. Here the most notable thing about this is Jacqueline Tate’s performance, particularly the comic timing with which she delivers the line “Tell him to stay in the closet”.
Onto another contentious subject, Rachel enters with Kate Monster on her arm, and Adam, now performing Princeton asks her if she and Trekkie Monster are related. Although Rachel’s performance does not quite have the zest of Cassidy Janson, nevertheless she makes Kate’s reaction that’s racist, as “Not all monsters are related” quite noticeable enough. The company launch enthusiastically into Everyone’s A Little Bit Racist, they must have done a good job with the song, because afterwards the tune got stuck in my head. Interestingly the person who stood out the most in this number was Edward Judge, singing the line “How many oriental wives have you got”. To which one of the others retorts that “the phrase is Asian American”. Somehow Jacqueline Tate’s performance in this number, though satisfactory, was not as memorable as when she did it in the West End.
Next up we meet The Bad Ideas Bears. Once again they are some of the funniest bits in the show. They are now performed by the very funny Chris Thatcher, and ably abetted by an enthusiastic Katharine Moraz. She also has to perform Mrs T and seems to do this perfectly well.
The Internet Is For Porn is perhaps the most vulgar distasteful song in the entire show, one which Sam The Eagle would most definitely have wanted to ban. The various male characters singing it all indicate with their dancing just what their characters are doing. Edward Judge and Matthew J Henry as actors, the latter being particularly noticeable in the dancing. Meanwhile Chris Thatcher performing Trekkie carried the song. Chris gives Trekkie the standard kind of voice that most young puppeteers who have done Trekkie have given the character, a sort of cross between Frank Oz (‘s Cookie Monster) and Jerry Nelson (‘s Herry Monster). It is just the perfect kind of voice for this character. Since they are appearing at the windows of their apartments, it less clear whether Adam was performing Princeton or Rod, as both appear in the song. However the puppeteers performing Princeton and Rod both made the puppets dance convincingly vulgarly. Nigel Plaskitt evidently did a very good job coaching them, to get them to make their puppets do something it has been said only he (Nigel) and Anthony Asbury could get the Spitting Image grotesques to do convincingly. The one piece of light relief in this song is Rachel Jerram as Kate Monster, complaining that Trekkie is ruining her song. Although Rachel’s accent does not have quite the delightful magical touch that Julie Atherton gave it (where is really did sound remarkably to that certain style of cute female voice that various Sesame Street women puppeteers have used), it is nevertheless close enough to give us a vague reminder of that kind of voice, and I would guess perhaps the closest that Rachel can get to it while still being resolutely herself. Certainly Rachel and Chris between them dominate the number and seem to almost bounce off each other, like a good puppetry double act should. The Muppets were notable for their pairings of double acts, certain puppeteers always seemed to work particularly well together. Pairings such as: Jim Henson & Frank Oz, Jerry Nelson & Louise Gold, and more recently Dave Goelz & Steve Whitmire.
One of the great things about Avenue Q as a show is the fact that it continually changes pace and style, so if you don’t like one scene or song, you may well like the next. So having just had a vulgar song about pornography, we now get the beautifully romantic Mix Tape. Certainly Rachel’s performance of the song is romantic. Even if Princeton does not quite join in the romance, at this point. The change made last time I saw the show, of having Princeton call it a “Mix” rather than a “Mix Tape” and handed her a CD rather than an actual tape has been kept. I still prefer the original, but then I’m a bit of a traditionalist and don’t particularly want musicals to be updated. Besides while fewer people are using audio tapes, it is still possible to use them, and some of us jolly well do, having not yet found the newer technologies to be entirely satisfactory as a complete replacement. Nevertheless it is terrific that the song is still included. For the first time I suddenly noticed one very special little reference in the lyric, a reference I had not noticed before. When Kate is reading out the list of songs that Princeton has included on his Mix for her, one of those song titles is Moving Right Along. This is a beautiful touch, after all that song by Paul Williams and Kenny Ascher came from the first Muppet Movie, where it was sung by those legendary puppeteers Jim Henson and Frank Oz (as Kermit The Frog and Fozzie Bear respectively). How lovely to have a little Muppet reference like that, and so subtle one could almost miss it (as indeed I did three times).
On to the scene at The Club, it is Edward Judge’s turn to take centre stage to sing I’m Not Wearing Underwear Today. Though the song is a bit on the vulgar side, he keeps his dancing to being comparatively subtle. Anyway it is a perfectly satisfactory performance of the number.
The club scene is a particular test of the skills and talents of the leading lady. The second time I saw the show Rebecca Lock had made the mistake of digging her roles into a bit of a hole. which really showed in this scene. Whereas Julie Atherton and Cassidy Janson both came up with remarkably different voices for Lucy The Slut, compared to Kate Monster. For example Cassidy did Lucy with a gravel-voice. Now it is Rachel Jerram’s turn, and she too manages to give Lucy a remarkably different voice to her Kate Monster voice, and make the part very much her own. In fact what she came up with for Lucy made me see the character in a whole new light. While it is obvious that Rod, Nicky, Trekkie Monster and Kate Monster are all loosely, very loosely based on grown up versions of stereo-typed characters you would find on Sesame Street, and interestingly so too is Princeton, probably. I had never thought of Lucy The Slut as being in any way related to any characters one might find on Sesame Street. But now watching Rachel Jerram’s performance, was it Rachel’s performance, or the effect of watching this in Richmond Theatre, I don’t know, but I suddenly realised that in some ways Lucy The Slut too could be a stereotype of a certain kind of character one finds on Sesame Street, the singing diva. Characters such as: the Nestrapolitan Opera’s Charmin’, or Miss Ethel Mermaid, or Diva (Louise) who sang the alphabet (going up and down with the stage hands directions), and of course Diva D’Abruzzo.
Trekkie Monster is among those who have come to the club that night, much to the surprise of the other Avenue Q residents, as he doesn’t usually leave his apartment. On previous occasions however, he had not made that much of an impact in this scene. However, tonight in Chris Thatcher’s increasingly capable hands Trekkie certainly makes himself noticed. Even when he is just on the edge of the scene, he is subtly upstaging the others, in a manner so very like the way The Muppets used to ruthlessly upstage each other during production numbers on The Muppet Show itself. Chris really has picked up on that Muppety sense of anarchic fun, especially when he has his hands up Trekkie Monster. Of course the monsters could be the most outrageous of all the Muppet characters, as they undoubtedly proved on the 1977 Royal Variety. Trekkie, particularly in Chris hands is so clearly one of their sort.
Chris, along with Katharine come to the fore towards the end of the Club scene, as The Bad Ideas Bears, who dominate Princeton and Kate getting drunk. This leads into You Can Be As Loud As The Hell You Want When You’re Making Love, which is quite a piste de resistance from Adam and Rachel, clearly excellently coached by Nigel Plaskitt, to get their puppets to do that so well. Here I noticed that Rachel seemed to have her own rather awkward looking way of holding her puppet’s arm rods, I don’t recall Julie, or Rebecca, or Cassidy looking so awkward, but maybe I just didn’t notice.
Adam takes on a starring role in the next song, Fantasies Come True. Somehow he just about manages to hold his own in this number, despite the fact that his partner for the number is the brilliant Chris.
The morning after the night before brings Kate Monster back down to earth, as she oversleeps and then quits her job before Mrs T can fire her. Rachel, along with Katharine (as Mrs T) makes this scene quite memorable, I don’t recall it so well in other performances).
Brian and Christmas Eve’s wedding is a delightful mixture of Jewish and Japanese. Along with Matthew J Henry, now wearing a suit and doing a decidedly silly walk, surely worthy of Monty Python’s Ministry.
Adam is quite charismatic, as he sings Rod’s song of desperation My Girlfriend Who Lives In Canada. Then with a swift change of character, he performs Princeton clearly caught up in a nightmare scenario when the word “Purpose” turns into “Propose”. At which he decides to dump Kate, just when she, in her cute tomboyish monsterish way has caught Christmas Eve’s bouquet. Thus Act 1 ends, in an almost musical theatre stereotype way with the lovers apart.
Act 2 opens with Princeton, performed by Adam, alone in his apartment. Brian, played by Edward, enters to try and persuade him to step outside, reminding him There Is Life Outside Your Apartment. He is backed up by Princeton’s packing boxes, brought to life by Chris, Rachel, and, Katharine. All muck in well as ensemble, in a way reminiscent of how on The Muppet Show itself, and memorably on the Easter Special The Tale Of The Bunny Picnic even very experienced senior puppeteers sometimes lent a hand doing more minor roles. Brian also attempts to cheer Princeton up with a joke, about a well endowed redhead, which he hasn’t yet finished the punch line. For some uncanny reason this immediately makes me think of the description in Roger Law’s autobiography of the Spitting Image puppeteers on a French tuna-fish advertisement.
Shortly after this, Rachel re-enters with Lucy on her arm, superior and divaish completely not thinking that Princeton would want a monster over her. A little later, I think it was Katharine who brought Kate Monster on, with Rachel voicing both parts as Kate asked Lucy to deliver a note, the audience know, just know he will not receive that note.
Christmas Eve’s song of commiseration The More You Ruv Someone finds Jacqueline Tate performing nearly up to the high standard that she did last time.
Matthew J Henry’s performance of Schadenfreude, while perhaps not quite up there with Giles Terra, is nevertheless a big improvement on Delroy Atkinson. It’s a jolly good number, and tonight it came across rather well. It also keeps making me think of a certain West End Musical theatre actress singing I Told You So in her cabaret act. Or did it put me in mind of a certain incident at Lauderdale House’s Hampstead And Highgate Arts Festival Cabaret Special back in 2002.
The scene involving Kate dropping Princeton’s lucky coin off the Empire State Building, finds Rachel puppeteering Lucy, and voicing both Kate and Lucy, and changing between one and the other quite quickly. However she is clearly a capable performer. The scene which follows cannot help but remind the audience, however slightly, of Vetinarians Hospital.
I Wish I Could Go Back To College is just as poignant as it was last time I saw this show performed. All of the puppeteers sing it well. Rachel and Adam are the two who stand out in this number.
The Money Song manages to be quite rousing, even though Adam, although good, is not quite as outstanding as Paul Spicer was when he did it. Nevertheless he is Arts Ed trained, and performs with something of the kind of skill and verve we have come to expect from puppet-people trained by that institution. The rest of the company in particular Chris also provide good support, and are much more noticeable than the last time I saw it when Paul Spicer completely dominated the number. The song itself is wonderfully upbeat and positive. However, for the first time I actually found the song a bit too idealistic. Maybe I am becoming a jaded grown up cynic. Although I would hope that the song’s message of “when you help others you can’t help helping yourself” could be true, I am afraid that in this dog eat dog free market capitalist world the cold hard reality is that real life is not like that. When you try to help others you put yourself at serious risk of being taken advantage of or worse conned. The shortcomings of this song serve to highlight one of the few important issues that this show does not cover. The difficulties that many people (such as job hunters, new entrants to professions, and students, as well as potential investors) face in trying to find their career path, while not getting scammed though falling for unscrupulous job finding ‘agencies’ or going on ‘Training courses’ that invariably do not live up to the hype of helping them to land their dream job, or doing unpaid jobs to gain ‘experience’ for companies that have absolutely no intention of paying them the minimum wage, let along the proper union rate for their “job”.
The company does make some interesting comments on examining the hats they have passed around, and it’s clear that there are lines here which are altered not only depending on which country the show is being performed in, but also where in the country it is performed. In the West End there had I think been a reference to a Euro or some such foreign coin in the hat. Tonight we had “A season-ticket for Kew Gardens – don’t suppose that’s worth anything”. (Richmond being very close to Kew Gardens, this was clearly a little ‘local’ reference for this week of the tour)
Kate’s School For Monsters / The Money Song Reprise, comes across rather better than last time, possibly because The Money Song itself had made slightly less of an impact. Rachel acts Kate’s surprise and delight at finally getting her Monstersorri School very touchingly. In this show fantasies it seems come true, at which point of course Nicky enters with the boyfriend Ricky he has found for Rod. Meanwhile Princeton still has to find his purpose. The versatile Chris, having just put Nicky down now enters with a puppet of a new graduate, at which Princeton wonders if his purpose is to put all the things he is learning into a musical. A lovely touch, since this is a musical about all those sorts of things. Finally we come to For Now, which finds all four puppeteers each wearing two puppets. Adam wears both Princeton and Rod, Chris wears Trekkie and Nicky, Rachel wears Kate and Lucy, and Katharine wears both the Bad Ideas Bears. Meanwhile the band put in an appearance at the windows of the apartments. Either the acoustics were not very good, or the radio mics were not too clear at this point, or else some of the puppeteers were tending towards bad diction (some performers, do have tendencies to bad diction where they are tired), but I found it difficult to make out the lyrics of this song, an therefore could not quite tell if they had been changed from the original. They probably have been changed, but I couldn’t quite tell what the changes were.
So how does this performance compare to the other three that I have seen of this show? It compares quite well. Not perhaps quite as good at the first and third time I saw it, but considerably better than the second time I saw it. However, some of the cast do stand out, while the others are generally satisfactory.
Of the live actors it took me a while to get accustomed to Matthew J Henry, for his performance of Gary is quite unlike Delroy Atkinson’s or Giles Tera. However on reflection I think in a strange kind of a way Matthew’s performance may perhaps be the most realistically believable. Giles’s perhaps fits the affectionate parody style of the show best, but Matthew’s has validity. Edward Judge’s performance as Brian is entirely satisfactory. He lacks the little something extra that Christopher Fry brought to the performance. However, he does make Brian fit very convincingly into the whole parody set up. One could easily imagine this guy as an adult version of some of the human grown ups on Sesame Street. As for Jacqueline Tate I do not know if it is the constraints of touring but she does not seem to come across quite as well as she did when I saw her brilliant performance in the West End. However, she was more than satisfactory, at least on a par with Jacqui Sanchez, if not quite up to her own high standards.
As with previous performances, one has to bear in mind that all of the puppeteers are young, and as far as can be judged from their resumes they have had little or no experience of puppetry prior to working on Avenue Q, they had to learn the puppeteers craft to do this show. As a result although they are talented and well taught there are frequently occasions when their performances show a distinct lack of experience. But one has to remember that even the best puppeteers had to start somewhere (let us not forget that ‘The English Muppet’ had to learn her craft performing on The Muppet Show, and sometimes her performances on that certainly lacked the polish of experience). So what of the four young puppeteers performing tonight.
Katharine Moraz seems to make a pretty decent varsity squad puppeteer, doing whatever characters and right hands required. It says in her resume that she “is thrilled to be a part of Avenue Q”, her enthusiasm is very much apparent in her performance, and communicates itself well to the audience, particularly with her own character of the Female Bad Ideas Bear. Remember in this sort of puppetry there was something of a tradition for puppet characters to be an extension of his or her puppeteer, and consequently usually have a few traits in common with their puppeteers (for example on The Muppet Show: Kermit the Frog, Fozzie Bear, Floyd Pepper, Scooter, Gonzo, Annie Sue Pig, Rizzo The Rat, and Gaffer-the-Cat could well all have carried traits of their member of The Muppet Show Eight).
Rachel Jerram is a surprise. Putting her into a leading role, rather than a supporting one actually improves her performance, at least in terms of singing and acting. Unfortunately her puppetry was not all that convincing, however, one has to bear in mind that she is still rather new to the art-form, but as with Cassidy Janson I’m not too sure puppetry is necessarily something she has that much of a gift for. However, she is clearly a talented theatre performer, and the best GSA actress I have seen to date. From what I have seen I have not usually been all that impressed by that institutions actresses, however, Rachel Jerram looks like being an exception. Importantly she very sensibly played the character of Kate Monster in the way that was right for her, rather than attempting to imitate anyone else. Thus she made the character her own.
Adam Pettigrew, meanwhile, trained at Arts Educational, an institution which it seems, has over the years besides training many an excellent musical theatre dancer, produced a few actors who turn out to have something of a flair for puppetry. Last time I saw Avenue Q, I was quite amazed by (another Arts Ed Alumni) Paul Spicer’s performance as Princton and Rod, and let us not forget that back in the early 1970s that school was responsible for educating a very notable English puppeteer. Typical of the Arts Ed performers Adam clearly moves well, and has a reasonable stage presence. He is still very new to taking on leading roles, though he evidently has the talent to do so, he lacks the polish of experience, and his puppetry too clearly lacks this polish. Overall he was not as spectacular as Paul Spicer had been in this part. However he is a likeable performer, and he only graduated last July, so it may be interesting to see how his career develops.
One performer who it has to be said is no shrinking violet is Chris Thatcher. He has been with Avenue Q on and off for quite some-time now. During that time he has clearly developed his skills as a puppeteer, for which he obviously has a talent. He also has something of that magic touch of loose fluid chutzpah so necessary to bring these sort of characters to life. His performance, particularly as Trekkie Monster was the highlight of the evening. He has made that character so very much his own, and yet at the same time combined that with being totally true to how we expect that character to be played. There were actually moments, such as the scene at the club, where I had not before really registered the fact that Trekkie was present, but Chris’s efforts at subtle up-staging made sure one is always aware if his characters if he is in a scene. He also did a great job with the Male Bad Ideas Bear. Although he seemed a little less comfortable with the character of Nicky, he nevertheless performed it well. Although he still has plenty to learn, he has a clear talent for puppetry, and he really understands the kind of humour of this affectionate pastiche of a show. In other words the zany, anarchic humour of The Muppets. Nearly three years ago, while performing in Avenue Q in the West End, when taking part in a charity event Chris, performing Trekkie, Monster-Hugged a Muppeteer who thirty one years earlier had Monster-hugged The Prince Of Wales. Perhaps something of those furry antics have rubbed off on him, or maybe he always had a tendency to be extrovert, who knows.
So overall, the show is similar to the other three performances of it that I have seen in the West End. Once again some parts were an improvement of previous performers, and others not. Having over the past five years seen this show three times in the West End I was concerned I might start to get bored. But not a bit of it. Having different performers helps to keep the show fresh, and also there seem to be a few little touches which might have been present before, but which I had not noticed before, mainly that during those scenes where nearly everyone is present, such as at the club or the wedding some of those, who aren’t as involved in the main plot at that stage, have their own little actions within the scene, which can at times almost upstage those characters who are supposed to be carrying the scene, yes very much like the sort of thing which used to happen on The Muppet Show. Indeed his is one of those shows that is so full of interesting bits and piece that even when you think you know it there can still be little things which take one by surprise. Which means that Avenue Q is well worth catching up with now and again. While I wouldn’t want to see it too often close together, seeing it once every one or two years is rather fun. However, I am particularly glad to have had the opportunity of seeing the show in Richmond Theatre, it seems a strangely appropriate setting for this rather unusual musical.
Off Site Links:
Avenue Q, London Production, Official Site: http://www.avenueqthemusical.co.uk/