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Avenue Q teaches harsh life lessons via puppetry

By Kenneth Ingram on June 12, 2015

The award-winning musical Avenue Q will return to Ottawa June 17-20 thanks to Toto Too Theatre Company. The director, Michael Gareau, reveals that the show will deliver a Canadianized performance (with the help of 11 cast members and 32 puppets), promising to be hilariously entertaining, potentially offensive but relevant to the harsher realities of life – particularly adolescence.

“It takes the lessons that Sesame Street taught children and it raises them ever-so-slightly so that they can be aimed at adults,” Gareau explains, calling attention to many parallels with Avenue Q’s characters.

“Cookie Monster lived for cookies with the big ‘me love cookies,” he offers as one example.

“In [Avenue Q], we have a Trekkie Monster who sits behind his computer all day and signs into porn sites,” he laughs, noting that the monster later transforms his porn addiction into an arguably noble cause towards the end of the show.

“[The audience] will recognize the formula and the characters,” says Ted Chartrand, board chair and managing director, whom also notes that Avenue Q ranks 23rd among the longest-running shows in Broadway’s history.

“It’s going to be interesting to quite a wide audience,” he says.

Avenue Q Avenue Q’s last visit to Ottawa in 2010 at the NAC was produced by Broadway Across Canada. That this year’s performance debuts on a Wednesday (AKA hump day) may be symbolic – not only in reference to furry puppets having sex on stage but also the hurdle that some theatre-goers may have to leap in order to appreciate the adult content.

Chartrand calls attention to one of the songs in particular, sung by the character Rod as he boasts about his girlfriend, Alberta, who lives in Vancouver (kinda), explaining that it’s a decisive point for the audience.

“The last line in that song, I’m sure, if you don’t hear the audience gasp, I’ll be very surprised,” he says.

“The way [the word is] said; half the audience will laugh…and half the audience will gasp,” adds Gareau, confidently, adding that other theatre companies may shy away from Avenue Q because there are many four-letter words.

“We do stuff that other theatre companies won’t do,” says Chartrand.

Apt613: The show first appeared off-broadway in 2003. Is the musical’s content [described as a coming-of-age parable] still relevant for audiences – and if so – how?

“Has that much changed [over the past ten years] for young people? I don’t think so,” says Gareau.

“We’ve all heard the expression that art imitates life,” Chartrand adds.

“When it comes to Avenue Q, I look at it as a very good imitation [of life], particularly when we look at the climate that we’ve got right now for young people who can’t find work, [are dealing with] issues of sexual orientation…[and] where you’ve got an increasingly diverse population with immigration. Avenue Q talks about all of these things. Avenue Q is very topical and it speaks to a younger audience. It actually has their life on the stage.”

“It’s playing on the Sesame Street lessons but for adults. It’s very, very clever stuff,” says Gareau.

Mrs. Thistletwat spotted window shopping in Ottawa 2Apt613: How has this performance been Canadianized?

“The show was original set in the [United] States and we’ve had permission from the authors to relocate it to Canada,” explains Chartrand, noting that the ability to change the odd word allows them to poke fun at a variety of topics.

“We’ve localized it so when talking about dollars, they’re loonies. The character Kate Monster considers throwing herself off the viewing tower of the Empire State Building [in the original] and now it’s off the Peace Tower.”

“There’s an Avenue Q in most cities. In fact, there’s an Avenue Q in Ottawa…down by the Trainyards. When the two leads get married in Avenue Q, they move from Avenue Q in the Trainyards and they’re moving on up to Vanier.”

“There’s a beautiful final number of the show where the lyrics are ‘everything in life is only for now,’” says Gareau. “You’re gonna lose your hair some day, so hair is only for now. Sex is only for now. And there’s one lyric that is always left open so we’ve changed it to Harper.”

“The script manages to make fun of a lot.”

Apt613: The cast has to act, sing, dance, and use puppets.  What was involved with the audition for this musical?

“I think it’s one of the most important – if not the most important day – in the whole process,” says Gareau.

“We asked them to prepare 32 bars [a verse and a chorus of a song]. We had sent copies of scripted lines to them.”

“They all came in as a group and worked with the choreographer [Aileen Szkwarek]. We spent a full day and saw about 33 to 35 people for 11 roles. Anywhere from an hour to 90 minutes they were there for.”

A puppet was also on hand for the audition and special attention was given to chemistry between actors, who also perform as puppeteers.

“We have a very talented cast,” says Chartrand. “Young people who are enthusiastic. Who can sing. Who can move.”

“This cast can sing,” says Gareau. “After being involved [with theatre] for almost 45 years, you don’t always get that sound [harmony] in a cast. It’s stunning.”

Only four performances of Avenue Q are scheduled from June 17- 20 at the Kailash Mital Theatre, Carleton University (1125 Colonel By Drive). Two acts with one intermission. Open seating. Arrive early. Tickets may be purchased online via Toto Too Theatre Company’s website.  WARNING: Adult-content and not recommended for kids under 13. Parental guidance is suggested.  Toto Theatre Company is an incorporated non-profit that recently partnered with the Ten Oaks Project, a charitable organization for LGBTQ+ youth and families.