Puppets. Drunken sex. Post-graduation ennui.
All these ideas share stage space in Avenue Q, which itself occupies a curious position in the pantheon of musical theatre. The script draws heavily on pop culture—it’s framed by a parodic Sesame Street landscape, where Gary Coleman’s the landlord and a haphazard mix of humans and puppets try to figure out their respective adulthoods—and happily belts out more irreverent raunch than the average Tony Award-winner. Its most beloved songs have titles like “The Internet Is for Porn” and “Schadenfreude;” not quite the revelations theatre is usually known for, but which have landed with audiences regardless—maybe because the bulk of its cast are fabric, not flesh-and-blood.
“There’s room for forgiveness with a puppet,” Andrew MacDonald-Smith says. “Most of the most offensive things are said by pieces of fabric, foam and felt. But it’s also the things that are the most difficult to hear that are also reasonably true. Songs like ‘Everyone’s a Little Bit Racist;’ it’s uncomfortable to hear, but because it’s two puppets who say it, you’re completely endeared, and it allows for some really uncomfortable things to be discussed and accepted quite openly. Which I think is magic.”
MacDonald is seated next to co-star Rachel Bowron in the Citadel’s Normand’s Bistro. Show content aside, they note there’s plenty of depth to its musical elements: Robert Lopez, one of Avenue Q‘s composers, went on to co-write The Book of Mormon and the songs in Disney’s Frozen. His work in Q, they note, shows an innate knowledge of musicals in among its more puppety happenings.
“They reference West Side Story, and they reference Judy Garland,” MacDonald-Smith says.
“It’s all in the music,” Bowron adds. “All the songs are so, so, full. There’s lots of those little moments, and I think more educated musical-theatre audiences will be like, ‘That was such a West Side moment.’ Which is really fun; little inside jokes, musically.”
MacDonald-Smith’s been down to the Avenue before: he did a months-long run of Avenue Q in Vancouver back in 2013, as well as a 2006 appearance on the original Broadway run, after winning a “One Night Stand” competition. Bowron was very familiar with the show—”It’s been a long-time love of the show,” she says. “Singing the songs in auditions, in college for projects in school … “—but notes that working on the inside for the first time means she’s had to adjust to her comic sensibilities somewhat: Avenue Q doesn’t hide its puppeteers, meaning its performers have to wrap their heads around performing while making their puppet perform concurrently.
“Finding nuance—I think that’s the hardest thing,” she says. “And thoughts. Or making little takes; takes are different with puppets. You can’t just shoot out a deadpan moment in the same way. It has to read on the puppet first—it’s not going to get a laugh the same way.”
“Because it’s all external—nothing happens internally on a puppet,” MacDonald-Smith adds. “You don’t get to see that glimmer in the eye that happens naturally to a person. It all has to be external.”
Until Sun, May 24 (7:30 pm; 1:30 pm Sun matinees)
Directed by Dayna Tekatch
Citadel Theatre, $30 – $99.75