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Avenue Q. LAODS. Lincoln Arts Centre. 13 June 2024

I must confess that this is a show I have been waiting a full 12 months to see at the Lincoln Arts Centre, since seeing All Shook Up by the same company last year and noticing their advertisement for this production at the back of the programme. I love Avenue Q, but I am well aware that since it has been released for amateur performance, there have been some truly woeful productions staged that have ideas above their station and simply do not deliver. I am delighted to say that the Lincolnshire Amateur Operatic and Dramatic Society is not one of those productions and it absolutely delivers on every level.

The first thing to make an impression as you enter the auditorium is the set. You could easily be forgiven for thinking this was a part of the TV studio set for Sesame Street. It recreates the New York Brown Stone style perfectly and has just the right level of sleaze for the run down neighbourhood it is portraying. From the ivy covered slightly dowdy fences, the New York fire hydrant and payphone to the washing on the lines, the attention to detail is fabulous.

Then the fun begins as the music rises and we are greeted to animation akin to the opening titles of a kids' TV show, projected onto one of said fences. It works wonderfully. Vocals soar and the harmonies combine beautifully - a tribute to MD Simon Claver with the hopeful and optimistic theme tune. This gives way to the entrance of our protagonist, Princeton, a 22 year-old graduate in English who is looking for a place to live.

Oh, and he is a puppet. A fleece and foam puppet that wouldn't be out of place in Jim Henson's world. Avenue Q is a puppet show - for adults. Each puppeteer is in clear view of the audience but this does not distract from the puppetry on display. When puppetry is done well, you focus on the puppet and ignore the puppeteer. That is the case throughout this show from every puppeteer on stage.

But they are not alone, they are also joined by human characters who live and interact with the puppets, including the building's superintendent who just happens to be THE Gary Coleman. I mean, its not, but the character is a loving parody of the late comic actor/child star. Princeton is seeking to find his place in the world and settles in on Avenue Q, the cheapest neighbourhood he can afford to rent in. And that is the gist of this musical.

This awe-inspiring show is skilfully directed by Lyndon Warnsby and the delightfully chirpy choreography is by Ruth Perry with the aforementioned Simon Calver as MD. Together they have helmed a show which will have audiences in hysterics as they marvel at the skills of the performers bringing their A game to the show in music, dance, drama, and puppetry!

Princeton is played by a performer new to LAODS, Harry Lawrence and like Princeton, Harry is a twenty-something, not long out of college who really understands the trials and tribulations facing the lead character. Princeton is full of hope, earnest and deeply trusting and ready for love - once he finds his purpose in life. Lawrence possesses a terrific voice and has a real presence on stage. His performance of Purpose really demonstrates how good his voice is.

Providing the heart for the show, is Princeton's love interest, Kate Monster. A sweet kindergarten teaching assistant who is looking for love and lives in pursuit of her dream to build a school for monsters. Nicola Calver is wonderful in the role. I adored her performance of There's A Fine, Fine Line. I cannot fault her performance as she gives life to the puppet magnificently and her quirky character voice carries over into the singing and is a joy to watch.

Also living in the building is Trekkie Monster, a seedy, gruff-voiced and abrasive character who could be related to Cookie Monster or Oscar the Grouch. Trekkie is performed by husband and wife duo Bryan and Kelsey McBride. Bryan provides the voice and operates the head and left hand, while Kelsey silently operates the right. The co-ordination needed for this only comes after hours of practice to make it look natural but they do an impressive job working in tandem and Trekkie Monster's signature song is The Internet is For Porn is hilarious.

The couple on Sesame Street who always made me smile were Bert and Ernie and Avenue Q has its own equivalent couple. Here we have Rod and Nicky. The camp and flamboyant Rod loves musicals but is deeply offended should anyone suggest he might be gay. HIs caring and accepting friend and flatmate Nicky is supportive but upsets Rod by telling others he suspects he is gay and is cast onto the street to become homeless.

The uptight and repressed Rod is portrayed hilariously by Andy Morris, his quick temper and defensive behaviour result in Rod singing My Girlfriend Who Lives in Canada and it will bring the house down. Morris brings all of his comic styling and experience in musical theatre to the fore, playing Rod, and really breathes life into the puppetry here.

Nicky is another two-person puppet operated by Henry Park and Charlotte Orr. Park provides the voice and character as Orr effortlessly glides alongside him as teh perfect second arm operator. Park's voice truly reflects the performance of Rick Lyon who originated the role based on the voice of Jim Henson's Ernie and he does it with ease. Nicky's standout moment, is probably the song If You Were Gay. I absolutely loved the inclusion of signing by Nicky in The Money Song making the best use of the live hands in the puppet.

Tegan Rowe oozes sex-appeal as the tempestuous temptress, Lucy the Slut. A nightclub performer with loose morals and a high sex drive, Lucy is itching to get her claws into Princeton and manipulates everything to do so. Rowe performs fantastically and gives her all to this performance successfully. Watch out for her performance of Special.

The human couple on the street are Brian and his fiancee, named Christmas Eve, played by Tyson Warren and Stephanie Gibson. They have the thankless task of competing with the puppets and yet both achieve their moments to shine in their songs I'm Not Wearing Underwear Today and The More You Ruv Someone. Two lovely performances worthy of note.

Other fine performances came from Rachel White and Rosie Brown as the two Bad Ideas Bears. Again they truly brought their puppets to life, instilling them with mischief and mayhem masquerading as sound advice! Mrs Thistletwat, Kate Monster's employer is performed by Helen Green and Stacey Carr. Even this cameo role is performed with skill, humour and a deeply unpleasant character. Watch out for her. Other puppet performers also included Rik Hardenberg and Tim Hodson.

Last but not least was a standout performance for me, from Malena Zuoke as Gary Coleman. This role is demanding on many levels as Gary has to compete with the puppets for laughs and can so often go wrong. Zuoke's performance was pitch perfect. She played the brash former child star brilliantly, with outstanding comic timing and her singing and dancing marked her out as a very special talent. Her performance throughout is uniformly impressive, but I loved her performance in both Loud As The Hell You Want and Schadenfreude. This is a performer with an exceptional future ahead of her when she finds the right roles.

Overall, I think it is obvious that I loved this production and cannot recommend it highly enough. There are still tickets available but I suspect word of mouth will result in them being snapped up quickly. Do your best to be one of the ones who gets to see this magnificent show. Which opens 14 June and runs to 22 June (with no performances Monday or Tuesday).

Andy Evans 14 June 2024.

A gallery of photos can be found here

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