An avenue of delights

Avenue Q. Basildon Towngate Theatre – Until Saturday, 16 March. Review by Neil Speight

TO be honest, despite its Broadway and West End runs, Avenue Q had somewhat passed me by.  It was a winner of Best Musical, Book, and Score at the 2004 Tony Awards but I wouldn’t have got any of them in our local pub quiz. 

Arriving at Basildon’s Towngate Theatre on Monday evening (11 March) I had little idea what to expect – and having never been too aware of the delights of Sesame Street, which is  this show’s inspiration – I wasn’t sure I would get what was going on.

15 minutes into the show, my worst fears were beginning to be realised. I wasn’t enjoying it, I didn’t get what was happening and while it was evident the show was being performed by a very talented (and hard-working) cast I was even pondering an early  exit.

That would have been a colossal mistake. This is a show that grows and grows on you.

The extremely talented principals of Avenue Q.

Co-created by Jeff Marx and Bobby Lopez, who lists the Book of Mormon among his other credits, a cast of Muppet-style characters with their visible puppeteers and other singers tell the story of a college graduate named Princeton who moves into a shabby New York apartment all the way out on ‘Avenue Q’. There, he meets Kate Monster (the girl next door), Rod (the Republican with a secret), Trekkie (the internet sexpert), Lucy The Slut and other colourful types who help Princeton finally discover his true purpose in life!

Through a variety of songs that prick our conscience and perceptions the tale unfolds. My early misgivings drifted away as I began to concentrate on the characters, not their manipulators – though those same puppeteers are responsible many of the vocal highlights.

And there was one highlight in particular that sticks with me. Cecily Redman is the voice of two vastly different characters. Sweet, wistful Kate Monster and the incorrigible and wonderfully named Lucy The Slut.

The show has a great many ensemble numbers, with accomplished choreography and clever switches of puppets between their humans supporters. A cast of just a handful, seems to be huge thanks to that interplay.

Beautiful song

But it is a Cecily’s solo piece as Kate Monster ponders the twists of fate that have befallen her that was my showstopper.  

‘There’s a Fine, Fine Lin’ is a beautiful song. Given over to the talents of Cecily (winner of the 2017 Spotlight Prize for ‘best stage actor’) it soars. This young lady is destined to be a star of musical theatre. I can’t think of any leading West End role that would be beyond her. She’s a wonderful singer and no mean actor too.

This isn’t a one-woman show though, Lawrence Smith as Princeton and Rod is superb and Tom Steedon bring a number of characters, including Trekkie Monster to lovable, roguish life.

Those without puppets shine too. Soari Oda as Christmas Eve is a wonderful character player – as shown by her long list of programme credits  in the ten years since she graduated stage school. Oliver Stanley shines as Brian and Nicholas Mclean could well be TV’s tragic Gary Coleman for real – and the script doesn-t shy away from some near the knuckle references to his story. Sometimes life, comedy and tragedy can be moulded together in the right way!

All in all this is a terrific show, well-staged and with a superb orchestra. I don’t recall a note, vocal or otherwise, out all night. This is a tremendously talented collection of individuals who turned my frown into a smile – and more. By the end I was a fan, and I downloaded the soundtrack within half an hour of leaving the theatre.

Sometimes you get unexpected surprises. This was one for me and as there’s a week to go at the Towngate, I hope many more pop along to enjoy the show. You’d be a Muppet not to!