Monday, 27 June 2011

Avenue Q in Belfast - but does it travel well?

On the curtain up on the stage, the sun was hiding behind the hills of New Jersey, closer yet was the skyline of Manhattan but the Belfast Grand Opera House audience was in neither place. Yet closer, Brooklyn and Queens had their names in print but we were not even there. A big highlighted arrow gave away our location, a long island neighbourhood to the east of the city. A place where some monsters and people a little down on their luck lived. The theatre settled down, the TV screens descended, the curtain raised, we were gleefully immersed back into the world of Avenue Q.

You may have already read my experience of the comedy musical Avenue Q when Norngirl and I went to see it in it's native land and form last year. We were very impressed by it, had listened the the songs on repeat on our mp3 players at the gym ever since and were very eager to see the show again. This time we were sharing the fun with friends and family and we were all very happy that the show was visiting Belfast, giving us to chance to see it again so close to home.

This was the first UK tour of Avenue Q and I hadn't seen any of the performances from the likes of Youtube for the cast we were going to see. I'd heard there were a few changes between the New York and other versions of the show including the UK one and this was true, these were small changes but if you've spent a while listening to the original cast recording you might spot them. The changes were both good and bad, some bits made it funnier, other bits less so, it did seem the show was run at a faster pace but that could have just been our familiarity with the recording.

The biggest of these small changes was that some of the lyrics and words were changed or cut from the original. From an interview with Jeff Whitty back in 2006, he explained:

"For those who haven't memorized the cast album, there won't seem to be many changes at all. The experience of the show is almost exactly the same in London as in the United States. For me, knowing the show so well, it's peppered with changes, but usually it's a matter of two or three words changed, a few lyrics, a few changes in the orchestrations. And some cuts in the book and score that keep the show from eddying."

Norngirl and I admittedly qualify for 'memorized cast album' people. Most of the changes were indeed just subtle changes of words to make things more culturally specific and relevant to the audience in question - like 'Frat boy' changed to 'Drunk guy', 'Polak' changed to 'French', 'Long Island Iced Tea' changed to 'Absinthe Daiquiri'. For anyone who watches American TV shows (which would be hard not to do these days) these changes probably aren't really needed but it no doubt helps to ensure as many audiences as possible understand.

There were a few main differences between the New York - Off Broadway experience we had and my Belfast - Grand Opera House experience, and here they are:

Grand Opera House Belfast
> The song 'Schadenfreude' was better in it's original form (like we heard in New York) - the song really shouldn't have had so much cut out of it for a UK audience. Some of the best lines disappeared such as "Straight A students getting Bs, Exs getting STDs", in the words of a bad idea bear... 'that makes me sad!'

> The song 'Fantasise Come True' had better stage effects in Belfast - you wouldn't think it was a touring show at all. They really took you into Rod's dream and got the atmosphere just right, I dunno anything about stage production but I just know it was great visually.

> The character of Gary Coleman was played by a man in Belfast and a woman in New York. This is a tricky one. On one hand I think the songs seem to suit a female voice better, on the other hand the male Gary had more dance moves and was more a focal point in the scenes, but then on ermm, damn, I've run out of hands, OK, on the other metaphorical hand, the female Gary was able to get much bigger laughs from the playing on the juxtaposition of gender stereotypes. I think I'd personally opt for a female Gary but it is quite a trivial difference that doesn't effect the plot or the enjoyment of the show.

> I'll not spoil what they changed George Bush to in the the song "Only for Now" but it was just as funny.

The other little thing in comparing the two performances was that I did get the feeling of a little more authenticity about the show in New York but that's probably because we were watching actors pretending to be in New York when those very same actors lived and worked in the very same place, we were also in that place and the words were suited to that specific audience. There were some great individual performances by the cast we saw in Belfast but there were 3 or 4 moments where some of the cast's vocals at the ends of words didn't quite hit the accent they were speaking in - not that I could even do the accents they were pulling off for 2 hours for a second without sounding Indian, Jamaican or Welsh. Again this didn't effect the enjoyment of the show at all but it was why the New York show did suit the setting of the plot a smidgen more.

Other than that it was hard to pick out any other difference, it all just flowed along seamlessly and the plot is the same in both.

There was one other thing that was unexpected but pleasantly so; on the face of it the audience reaction was the same in that everyone was laughing and having a good time. The unexpected thing was that laughs didn't always materialise in the same place as they did the first time we saw the show. For the most part I was laughing at same time as the Belfast audience when in Belfast and the New York audience when we were there but a little bit of the New York memory was still in my head and there was one point where both Norngirl and I laughed but no one else did. The folks around us must have thought we had a supply of Nitrous Oxide under our seats or something. I think a big reason for this was just the subtle nuances on stage such as facial expressions and emphasis placed on the words in a different places by the cast. And it worked. Each cast played to their audience very well. I quite like the fact it wasn't identical for although we obviously knew the songs and plot, it was just the little bit of unpredictability needed to make it fresh and exciting.

The casts were fantastic in both and the puppets, well they were fantastic too. In the Belfast show my favourite cast member was Chris Thatcher who was operating Trekkie Monster and Nicky, he really brought those puppets to life. The best vocals undoubtedly came from Rachel Jerram who sang brilliantly as Kate Monster.

Overall, even with the differences in performers, audience, venue and the minor changes, the result was exactly the same. It was brilliant.

Avenue Q is a very funny, witty and engrossing musical that doesn't take itself seriously yet gets across messages of tolerance, perspective, hope & happiness that audiences (if they don't already hold) will keep with them forever and you know what, I don't think it matters where you see it, it's still a phenomenal show. Sadly the show finished at the Grand Opera House in Belfast on the 25th June but who knows... maybe it will return one day :)

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