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To clinical addicts of industrial cuteness, and to those who like American musicals that tell us How To Lead Our Lives Better, and to those who crave another musical devoid of any musical interest whatsoever, let me heartily commend Avenue Q. It makes Rodgers and Hammerstein sound like Samuel Beckett. Watching it is like being chained to a candy-floss machine: eventually, your intelligence feels eroded by all the homilies (“When You Help Others, You Can’t Help Helping Yourself” and “You Gotta Go After The Things You Want While You’re Still In Your Prime”) and it’s not till some minutes after leaving the theatre that you feel again fully capable of coherent thought.
Avenue Q, with music and lyrics by Robert Lopez and Jeff Marx, and book by Jeff Whitty, was directed on Broadway by Jason Moore, with Ken Roberson providing choreography. It means well, or, rather, it pretends to; and the road to hell is paved with musicals that are no worse. It pretends to sanction straight love, gay love, interracial love – to be a New York musical version of Tales of the City as told by Sesame Street-type glove-puppet cartoon-type characters. Really, though, Avenue Q is a cynical wiseguy show that wants you to believe, for example, that all men use the internet for porn and that any psychological ill can be cured by successful sex. Part of its cosiness is to suggest “Everyone’s A Little Bit Racist” and therefore we should stop being quite so politically correct.
Avenue Q wants you mindless and complacent, so that you will believe that all the world’s troubles are only short-term – “even George Bush!” It doesn’t do on Avenue Q to suggest that climate change or Middle East politics might be long-term problems; here problems get no worse than Lucy the Slut. Above all, Avenue Q wants you bawdy: those Sesame Street puppets (conceived and designed by Rick Lyon) go at it like rabbits, and they can talk plenty dirty. Which is OK: the best thing here is the lewd jokes. The worst thing is the homilies.
Cameron Mackintosh is presenting this in the handsomely refurbished Noël Coward Theatre, formerly the Albery, formerly the New, which first opened in 1903.And no theatre in London has a finer stage history: Fred Terry, Coward’s own West End debut, Sybil Thorndike’s Saint Joan, Gielgud, Olivier, Edith Evans and Peggy Ashcroft (even all four together in Romeo). Fonteyn, Helpmann, Ashton, the Vic-Wells Ballet through the second world war, Ralph Richardson’s Falstaff, Katharine Hepburn and Helen Mirren also graced this stage.
There are a number of reasons to suspect that the Noël Coward Foundation is not doing the best possible job, but its claim that Our Noël would have found Avenue Q “witty and entertaining” will do for starters. Nonetheless, once this tiresome little blancmange has blown away, I wish the Noël Coward Theatre very well.
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