On August 22, we saw Avenue Q at the Orpheum ($55). I was very excited, of course, since I had been hearing about it for years. And while I'm not sure it totally blew my mind, I definitely enjoyed it a lot. I especially liked the little Sesame Street-esque videos played between scenes; they were such an essential part of the show that it made me think about the limitations of putting it on. Of course, the major limitation of putting the show on is finding puppeteers who can act and sing. It was really amazing to watch the puppeteers because they, as actors, had to keep the focus off themselves. In the world of the play, they're not really there. They're not part of the show. The puppet is the character; they're just in charge of it. It helps that they're dressed in dark, regular clothes, whereas the puppets are very colorful, drawing your eye. The really interesting thing about watching them perform is their faces: they must remain emotionless while still emoting vocally. They must control the puppet's physical acting while not physically acting themselves. It must be fucking insane. Add to all that the fact that you have to be extremely talented to sing that well in muppet voice.
The show itself is a lot of fun, and pretty soon, you stop noticing the actors so much and see the puppets as characters. You sympathize with them and everything! The story is typical musical fare, but unlike most musicals, this show includes onstage sex. Between puppets.
The songs are very cute and in the style of Sesame Street songs, usually, but with more adult subject matter. You've probably heard of the most popular songs like "The Internet Is for Porn" and "Everyone's a Little Bit Racist." Another favorite of mine was "I Wish I Could Go Back to College." What I loved about the show was the fact that, because it was all cutesy and puppety and dirty at the same time, it could get away with being, well, honest. The resolution to Princeton's story was not what I expected, but it was realistic. Avenue Q is the truest musical I have ever seen.
(Trivia: I have no idea what a swing is in terms of the show, but one of the swings was the voice of Suki!! How cool is that?!)
Two days later, on Friday, I saw Aaah! Rosebud! ($18.42) at the Thunderbird Theatre. You may remember that I saw Release the Kraken! there last year. This year, they were taking on Citizen Kane, telling the tale of William Orson Kane and his evil sled. It's hard to put the play into words because it is, of course, so very absurd. What Citizen Kane parody would be complete without the great sport of curling, freakishly slow zombies, and a show-stopping musical number? Not to mention a fight with day-old baguettes? The Thunderbird Theatre clearly does not care to illuminate any great truths of humanity, but they want to be creative and entertaining, and they succeed.
And, finally, last night, I saw Sweeney Todd ($47) at A.C.T. This was the Tony-winning Broadway revival production where the actors doubled as the orchestra. And, really, they tripled as the stagehands. The ten actors were always onstage. Usually, they were off to the sides if they weren't in a scene, functioning as the mini-pit, but they carried their instruments with them from place to place, sometimes leaving them to be transferred to another actor. Sometimes they would sing or speak dialogue while playing. Usually, the instruments were like the actors in Avenue Q: you weren't supposed to pay attention to them; they weren't really in the scene. Sometimes, however, Mrs. Lovett would come out and shake her ass while playing the tuba.
The conceit of the production is that the play is a flashback/story/performance in a mental institution. You begin and end in an asylum, and Jesus God, I forgot how fucking creepy "The Ballad of Sweeney Todd" is. It gave me chills. The show proper is intact as far as I know, but the minimalist staging forces the audience to use its imagination a lot. Scenery isn't a priority, nor is blocking. Since some actors, particularly the cellists, are not as mobile as others, dialogue is often delivered straight forward; neither character is addressing the other onstage, but you can tell from the dialogue that they're talking to each other. It's a little confusing and distracting, honestly, and I have to think there's a better way around the complicated staging required to accomodate actor-musicians. Actor-musician-stagehands, as I said. The major prop is a giant coffin that turns into a platform or a table or a closet or whatever. You can play a cello on top of it! You can hide your violin in it! It's a very versatile coffin!
I think what I love about Sondheim is that he doesn't craft catchy songs. They're not runaway pop hits. That is, yes, some songs do sound quite song-like and follow familiar patterns. But, mostly, he's not "writing songs." He's allowing the characters to communicate through song. The lyrics and music fit whatever they need to say and how they need to say it. The songs tell the story, not interrupt it. And Sweeney Todd is almost all songs, with very little plain, spoken dialogue. Which means the actors hardly ever get a break, since they're playing the whole time.
It was a very cool production, although I kept comparing it to the production I saw at Rice, which I really liked. The actors didn't play any instruments there, but it was still good! In particular, I missed Judge Turpin's self-flagellation in "Johanna." I wasn't entirely sure what was supposed to be going on with him here, since they used so few props. I think maybe he had an orgasm at the end, I don't know.
Sweeney Todd is such a dark, darkly comedic show. It...doesn't really make you go, "Rah, rah, humanity!" But it's so good anyway! I'm even more excited about the movie now. Tim Burton! Johnny Depp! Helena Bonham Carter! Alan Rickman! Sacha Baron Cohen! This Christmas!
(Trivia: the resident musical director at A.C.T. is someone I went to Rice with! How cool is that?!)
So, there you have it. Theatre: it's not just for you men...with your sales, anymore!