By Lori Bosworth
“Come and play / Everything’s A-OK /Friendly neighbour there / That’s where we meet / Can you tell me how to get / How to get to Sesame Street?” Many of us grew up believing the optimistic lyrics from the highly acclaimed PBS children’s show. Avenue Q, which is currently playing at the Lower Ossington Theatre in Toronto, is a hilarious look at the thwarted dreams of several twenty-somethings who meet while living on Avenue Q, a low-income street. You can purchase discounted tickets through Buytopia for $24.50 for a reserved ticket or $29.50 for a premium reserved ticket here. (Tickets are regularly $49.)
The Tony-Award-winning musical features characters who perform with puppets that look similar to the Muppet crowd (although the play has no formal links to Sesame Street or The Jim Henson Company). Princeton, who has just graduated with a B.A. in English, can’t find a job, while Kate is a teaching assistant who longs to open her own school for monsters. Rod is a Republican banker who is still in the closet while his straight roommate, Nicky, is unemployed. Brian and his Japanese fiancée, Christmas Eve, can’t find sufficient work. Trekkie Monster loves porn just as much as Cookie Monster loves biscuits. All of them live in an apartment building run by child star and now has been, Gary Coleman (played by Natasha Strilchuk), who has one of the best lines in the play, “I have Rob Ford smoking crack in my basement.”
The group in this decidedly mature musical confronts heavy issues such as homophobia, racism, self esteem, pornography, the pursuit of happiness and the challenges of love while performing their highly engaging musical numbers. One standout number included, “You Can Be as Loud as the Hell You Want” performed by Strilchuk as Gary Coleman, along with the cast. Strilchuk has a beautifully rich tone to her lyrical voice and infuses lots of wink-wink cheekiness into her role as the child actor famous for “Whatchou talkin’ ’bout Willis?”
Jacqueline Martin plays the part of both Kate and Lucy (the Slut). Martin’s voice is particularly powerful and seductive in the lower octaves when she is singing Lucy’s sultrier number, “Special.” The striptease/bombshell intro played by the band every time Lucy appears on stage adds oomph to her character’s voluptuousness. As Kate, Martin brings an appropriate dose of freshness and naiveté.
Amelia Hironaka’s Christmas Eve dazzles with a prominent Japanese accent that is the root of much fun. Hironaka’s wonderful comedic timing provides her character with sass and smarts. Graham Scott Fleming brings a likeable sensitivity to the roles of Princeton and Rod.
Set designer Michael Galloro’s apartment building façade lovingly mimics the Sesame Street building, with actors appearing through open windows and doors. Touches that add spark and fun while honouring the inspiration for the play include the mini Empire State Building Kate ascends to, the row of boxes who perform a singing number and the singing mailbox. Rick Lyon’s puppets convey innocence and warmth and are skillfully puppeteered by the cast. Seanna Kennedy’s crisp direction has resulted in a vivacious production that will put a smile on your face from the opening number to the curtain.
While the evening is pure entertainment, Robert Lopez and Jeff Marx’s music and lyrics leave one with an upbeat feeling that none of us is perfect, but that’s okay.
Avenue Q performs at the Lower Ossington Theatre, 100A Ossington Avenue, 416-915-6747 until Saturday, August 3, 2013. New dates have been added for February 2014.