The current Toronto run of Avenue Q, the acclaimed 2004 Tony-winning musical, is a first-rate production of a tremendously entertaining show with an extremely uneven past. Instead of going immediately into touring mode after its Broadway run, the show moved to Las Vegas in 2005 where Tim Wynn built a new theatre for what he expected would be sold-out audiences. It closed in less than a year with 65 percent attendance. The West End run in London garnered very critical reviews, calling it everything from a “tiresome little blancmange” (Financial Times) to a “tame beast of a show” (Telegraph). London and New York have not always been the most agreeable bedfellows when it comes to theatrical enterprise.
Avenue Q publicity boasts “full frontal comedy” and “full puppet nudity,” warning audiences that the show is not suitable for children. On the contrary, if this show ever hopes to live up to the subversive qualities with which it flirts precariously, then using it as a children’s primer on sexuality, homophobia, racism and poverty would be an extremely effective route.
The performances are flawless and the puppets are enormously engaging. Double casting of some of the principals is seamless and at times goes unnoticed due to the very distinct vocal changes between characters. Robert McClure as Princeton and Rod, Anika Larsen as Kate Monster and Lucy and David Benoit as Nicky, Trekkie Monster and Bear are magnificent as they define a variety of lovable puppets. But perhaps that is part of the problem: Avenue Q may be just a bit too lovable, a bit too sweet, in the most saccharine sense of the word.
As it makes its crowd-pleasing attempt to address social issues, the show relies heavily upon unsettling stereotypes. In particular the character of Christmas Eve, played to perfection by Angela Ai, with her is an extremely problematic depiction of Asian-American identity. Ai, with her tremendous voice and high-energy performance, narrowly pulls it off as a kind of satiric, tongue-in-cheek comment. In the hands of a lesser performer the role could lapse into extremely offensive characterization — and undoubtedly does for some in the audience.
“Everyone’s a little bit racist/ Sometimes,” goes the song “Everyone’s a Little Bit Racist.” “Doesn’t mean we go/ Around committing hate crimes/ Maybe it’s a fact we all should face/ Everyone makes judgments/ Based on race.” Avenue Q’s cute, appeasing brand of satire crystallizes in the song’s pivotal — and highly inaccurate — lyric “Ethnic jokes may be uncouth/ But you laugh because they’re based on truth/ Don’t take them as personal attacks/ Everyone enjoys them, so relax!”
Indeed, tongue in cheek at its most precarious.
Nevertheless, relax, enjoy yourself and try to believe that an insult based on a simplistic and generalized form of truth is not a personal attack. But let’s not be too politically correct about any of this, eh? It’s so unpopular these days when people try to articulate their personal politics.
The show is loads of fun and the production values are of the highest order. The puppet sex is heterosexual and there are cute little references to gay DNA littering the lyrics to “If You Were Gay.” Have a blast, take your children, explain the content because, hey, everyone’s a little bit complacent, sometimes.