Disclaimer: Some content is inappropriate for readers under 18 years of age or those offended by swear words, references to sexuality, atheism, and libertarianism.

Tuesday, December 09, 2008

Lengthy Review of Emmet Otter's Jug-Band Christmas A New Musical

Okay, this post is likely to bore the pants off of anyone who is NOT a fan of Jim Henson, the Muppets, and/or Emmet Otter’s Jugband Christmas, so don’t say I didn’t warn you.

It was an awfully long drive to Connecticut but it was made a lot more pleasant by the kindness of my husband (he drove) and the relative chilled-out-ness of my two and a half year old daughter. When we finally got to the beautiful Goodspeed Theater, I was half brain-dead but not enough to ignore the appropriateness of the setting. A little footbridge carried the audience from the parking lot over to the charming little building set against a small lake (or large pond!) with a fantastic looking pub nearby. It could easily have been a setting snatched right out of the story itself.

We got there a little early and so enjoyed the luscious décor of the theater as best we could and finally plopped ourselves outside the unisex bathrooms. An elderly gentleman came in and I am fairly certain my eyes grew twice their size when I recognized him as the great Jerry Nelson, “father” of Floyd Pepper, Kermit’s nephew Robin, Gobo Fraggle, Count von Count, Dr. Strangepork, and of course the original Emmet Otter. He had an small oxygen tank with him and I’m fairly certain he met my wide eyed expression with a touch of “oh crap, I’ve only just got here and I’ve already got some half-crazed Muppet fan on my hands.” He asked if the bathroom was free and I said it was so he went in. When he emerged, I took my chances and asked if he was Mr. Nelson. He said he was and asked if he could sit down to sign the autograph I asked for. I immediately felt like ten different types of shit. The poor guy had oxygen with him, he seemed to struggle a little to breathe comfortably, his hands trembled a little, and he’d only just come out of the john. I hated myself so much right that, and I’m still mad at myself now. Anyway, he kindly autographed the copy of It’s Not Easy Being Green and I just sat there and tried to take in all the history behind one man, all that he had done, seen, and experienced. I felt even more pathetic that I honored all of that with one feeble request for an autograph.

We shuffled our way up to the theater and my husband pointed out Brian Henson standing a few meters away. I squinted at him to make sure it was him before embarrassing myself, and it was. His hair has changed many times, but when he smiled and turned in profile, I was sure it was him. I worked my way towards him and asked for an autograph too. This time, I felt like shit because I felt like I was a bit of an intrusion. He didn’t smile or say much beyond asking my name and then commenting when I had said it was wonderful to be able to meet both him and Jerry Nelson all in one evening. I stood there and was horrified at the realization that nothing I could saw in a few seconds would sum up how I felt about Henson and all that Henson has done. So I said nothing. I didn’t want to be a bother, so I clammed up, thanked him for his time and took my little growing collection of autographs to my seat.

The show started rather abruptly and the hanging map of Frogtown Hollow fell away to reveal a teenager girl’s bedroom. Hello. This is new, I thought. And a bit cheesy. God I hope it’s not too cheesy. The girl is Jane (Kate Wetherhead), it’s Christmas Eve, and she’s in the midst of a cell phone conversation with a friend before moving on to recording an “Xmas” song on her laptop. They’re trying to be hip, I thought. Oh dear. Well, I guess they feared not being able to connect with today’s youth who have been raised on TV shows starring hip, cynical, sarcastic characters as opposed to genuinely nice, sweet people. No one’s nice and sweet anymore, are they?

Jane’s father (Alan Campbell) came in and waxed nostalgic about Christmases past when his daughter delighted in making glittery Christmas ornaments as opposed to wallowing in the material side of the season. He brings up her once favorite book, Emmet Otter’s Jug-band Christmas. This leads into her permitting him to read her just the start of the story, before she goes to hang out with her friends. The scene then shifts to the river, where Emmet (Daniel Reichard) and Ma Otter (Cass Morgan) sing “The One Bathing Suit”. This stirred the audience beautifully. There were utterances of recognition, nostalgia, and delight all breathed simultaneously. It was like the whole hall turned into children again.

The boat rolled along, and the effect was added to by the puppets that were shown whizzing by both up and down-stage. The huge problem for us, being in the orchestra and not in the front row, was that the downstage puppets were barely visible at all, so I lost a LOT of the visual humor whenever they had puppets down there. Anyway, the ones that I could see speeding by were very funny. And then Wendel (perfectly recreated by Robb Sapp, everyone loved you, Mr. Sapp!) went by and the audience stirred again. You’d think they’d just seen an old friend who always made them laugh in years past.

A new exposition song, “Waterville” was added introducing the audience to Frogtown Hollow’s town, describing their pride in actually having electricity and indoor plumbing and generally giving an opportunity for the lovely cast to come out and show off their whimsical costumes. The humanoid animal costumes were perfect (well done, Mr. Gregg Barnes!), casting my memory back to stage productions of both Beatrix Potter stories and the Wind in the Willows. The make-up (no credit given to make-up artist in the program?) reminded me more of past productions of The Wind in the Willows, where small prostheses were added along with face paint as opposed to full masks covering the whole head as in the Beatrix Potter ballet. It was perfect too. Set against a warm, detailed set of the bedroom, the trees on either side of the stage, the riverbank, the town, and then the addition of a red curtain to imply the talent show towards the end, and the interior and exterior of the Otter’s cabin were all absolutely delightful and fluid. Anna Louizos (set design) and Brian MacDevitt (lighting design) brought to life a setting we all know so well. Mr. MacDevitt even went so far as to make sure he included that fantastic sunset you may recall from the movie as Ma and Emmet continue to row off out of sight and a single wading bird stands in the water, silhouetted against the orange and red sky. When that bird appeared downstage and stretched it’s long neck up towards the sky, I felt strangely like that was a symbol of the cast and crew’s respect and tribute to Jim Henson himself. The audience ooh-ed and laughed with appreciation of the attention paid to recreating and reimagining an image they knew so well.

The best thing about the whole show was the audience response to things. They anticipated jokes they remembered, delighted in new ones added, and practically squealed with joy at the sight of the Riverbottom Nightmare Band! The snake and catfish remained puppets throughout, while the rest were played by actors. They were later depicted as puppets in their car for both the tribute to the TV movie and to be able to have the car visible on stage at all.

Before making their entrance, the music store owner had her own little added exposition song, “At the Music Store”, to later contrast with her bawdy number Paul Williams had originally written a portion of but didn’t use when the movie was being made. The actress (Madeleine Doherty) was cute, and I could see her struggling to get to the instruments in time to mime the little notes that were actually played by the fantastic band, but working in community theater makes me all too ready to forgive little things like that. It was a cute little song, but I had a hard time catching all the lyrics because my daughter was getting antsy at a scene she didn’t recognize from the movie. The voice she chose to give the character was also laying the groundwork for an amusing contrast with her much deeper, throatier, sexier singing voice later on during the talent contest when she sings “Born in a Trunk”, but it meant that I had to strain a little to get all of her words with the squeaky, high pitched voice she started off with.

In Act II, a song was added to flesh out the loss Ma Otter still feels for her deceased husband. His spirit literally appears at her side and serenades her with his guitar, encouraging her to hold onto hope even though it appears that she has arrived too late to participate in the talent contest. “Alice Keep Dreaming” is followed by the talent show which was also given more depth by having the Old Lady Possum character (puppeteered by Anney McKilligan) not only playing accompaniment on the piano but also commenting on the acts. The infamous George and Melissa kicking and jumping act was funny enough as it was, but was actually enhanced by Old Lady Possum’s annoyance with them for having stolen some of her carrots recently, so she plays their music double time (and faster!) to exhaust them. The rabbits and acrobatic squirrels were all puppeteered by performers in black, camouflaged against the black backdrop. I’ve always thought that I would really enjoy the opportunity to do that kind of puppeteering… It incorporates a little more dance into the operation of the puppets, I feel…

Thankfully, Paul Williams’ beautiful song “When the River Meets the Sea” was reprised at the end. I always thought that was such a good song that it was a waste to have it sung only once in the movie. It stung my eyes a little to hear it live for the first time. It made me think of Jerry Nelson starting it off at Jim Henson’s memorial. Cass Morgan has a beautiful voice and it held all the maternal charm of the original Marilyn Sokol with her own individual, personal warmth added to the role. I also have to give mention to Kevin Covert who played the slightly cynical Mayor Fox really well. His relationship with his wife was given a little more color by having him forced to remove his badly disguised wife from the competition. I was delighted to see Tyler Bunch was one of the principle puppeteers too. My daughter absolutely adores him as Grampu in Oobi and I thought he was great in Puppet Up Uncensored!

Overall, I was GREATLY impressed by how the director and playwright, Christopher Gattelli and playwright Timothy A. McDonald played the dangerous game of “how do I breathe new life into a show without upsetting the dedicated fan base?” They managed to add in totally new funny lines and scenes as well as developing original jokes and plot lines. How they managed to do this so well, I have no idea. While I’m still not totally sure how I feel about Jane and her dad (not the actors, they were fine, just the addition of the characters), I can see how the authors may have worried about trying to connect a new, young audience to a show unlike anything else they’ll have ever seen in this age of cell phones, Internet, and sarcastic cynicism.
After the show I had the complete pleasure of chatting to Cheryl Henson who was as charming as I had hoped she would be. At intermission I was lucky enough to have my husband point out Paul Williams, who I then accosted and also asked for his autograph. He actually took the trouble to turn to a page in my book that bore some of his lyrics for him to sign next to, which I greatly appreciated since it's not often I get the opportunity to have someone like him scribble on something of my own. I forgot to tell him that part of the reason I love his songs so much is that he managed to write songs that sound as though they've been sung for generations the very moment he finished penning them. What skill that must involve...
And no, contrary to my original plan, I didn't have anyone sign my boobs.


Anney said...

Thanks for coming!

TeacherLady said...

Oh no, thank YOU. You all did a fantastic job.