The cast of Avenue Q (Photo credit: David Cooper)
You aren't likely to find a more solid, satisfying and well-produced show in Vancouver this holiday season. "Avenue Q" at The Arts Club on Granville Island is hilarious and dirty and sentimental. It's a gentle story about young adults who must find their ways after college. The show floats on a sea of good humour; even the trashy parts.
The cast of 10 comprises three humans and seven puppets operated by four puppeteers. Imagine "Sesame Street" with frank discussions of sex and depression and you get an idea of how the show operates. This reference to "Sesame Street" is no accident. Avenue Q is presented as an educational program and structured very like an episode of the children's TV show, with short scenes and short songs maintaining our attention.
And the show encapsulates that old charmer who everyone in the show (and in the audience) grew up watching: "I love trash!!"
The story begins as the whimsical Princeton, a recent college graduate, arrives at Avenue Q because he can afford no other neighbourhood in this large North American city. He is a melancholy character performed by puppeteer Jeremy Crittenden. Crittenden's light tenor gives Princeton a beautiful naiveté. He does most of the learning here. Crittenden gives the show a swell opening with the melancholy: "What Do You Do with a BA in English?" in a voice that is strong and compelling: we want this plaintive character to succeed.
Princeton quickly becomes part of the family of friendly folks who live in the neighbourhood and we meet a host of characters: Rod (Crittenden again) and Nicky (manipulated by Nick Fontaine) are this show's Ernie and Bert-like combo. Except in this case, Nick believes his roommate Rod is gay and urges him to come out. It's a theme of the play: be yourself.
Corny? Yes. There is a lot of corn here. The innocent Princeton learns about love and sex and friendship and hope. The corn works because the show has a charming innocence that it reveals in unsophisticated, sentimental songs like "BA in English" and "There's a Fine, Fine Line," a serious song about love.
Princeton falls in love with Kate Monster (a puppet manipulated by Kayla Dunbar in a performance so extraordinary it stands out and takes the show a step higher). Dunbar displays a powerful musical theatre voice that belongs in a bigger house. Her short program bio indicates she's just getting started herself, with performances at the Arts Club ("Hairspray") and shows with Carousel Theatre for Young People. This is a career to watch.
The other fine voice belongs to Selina Wong as Christmas Eve, an international student from Japan with two master's degrees but no work. She has the lungs to support one of the best songs in the show. She and Dunbar show off on the musical highlight of the evening: "The more you ruv someone"... the more you wish him dead.
Gifted local director Peter Jorgensen holds all the stage activity together and gives personalities to his puppets. They interact like living creatures and that's not easy for the director or his puppeteers. Facial and vocal nuance are key to the puppet success. Jorgensen has to keep his puppeteers moving about the stage in a kind of organized chaos, allowing the puppet characters to come and go with proper timing. Anyone who has attempted to make a lump of foam come to life will appreciate how complex is the task facing Jorgensen and his puppeteers. This is hard.
The show's writers have done a remarkable job, tapping into a universal angst and fearlessly addressing elements of the young adult experience. Robert Lopez and Jeff Marx hold our attention from the opening number, "It Sucks to be Me," to the whimsical, "I Wish I Could Go Back to College." They have captured the laughs and the limitations of 20-something youth. Book writer Jeff Whitty provides a gift of a script, full of events and emotions to musicalize.
Since 2004 (when "Avenue Q" won the Tony for best new musical), Lopez has been part of the "Book of Mormon" creative team (Best Musical Tony 2011), and he and his wife Kristen Anderson-Lopez wrote the score to the 2012 Disney Film, "Frozen," which features a little song called "Let It Go," an Oscar winner.
"Avenue Q," music and lyrics by Robert Lopez and Jeff Marx, book by Jeff Whitty, directed by Peter Jorgensen, at the Arts Club on Granville Island in Vancouver until Jan. 3. Buy tickets here.
ALSO ON HUFFPOST: