David Beukema! Take it away, David!
Being a Muppet fan in the Midwest can sometimes be a disheartening existence. One looks on with awe and seething jealousy while Muppet fans on either coast attend MuppetFest, make Whatnots at FAO Schwartz, or bask in the singular glow of Frank Oz’s trademark cantankerous charm at a Sesame Street panel discussion. But for once, I have a leg up on you suckers, because from September 8th until October 25th, the Children’s Theatre Company in Minneapolis, Minnesota is producing a new show called “Bert and Ernie, Goodnight!” Eat it, monkeys.
However, being the benevolent Minneapolitan (it’s a word) that I am, I went to see the show intending to share it with the Muppet fan community at large here on ToughPigs. So, armed with a notepad and bedecked in my best Cookie Monster T-shirt (I wasn’t going to wear a Bert and Ernie T-shirt — that’d look weird!), I eagerly made the trek to CTC this past Saturday. As I was circling the block, looking for parking, I saw a little girl wearing an Elmo shirt, and even the sight of that red little demon was cheering to me — kids were excited about seeing a Sesame Street show!
The Children’s Theatre Company has long been regarded as one of the leading children’s theatres in the country. Indeed, in 2003, they were awarded the Regional Theatre Tony Award — their attention to detail and commitment to quality is fantastic. After buying my rush ticket and walking up the stairs to the theatre, I was dumped into the merchandise area. Mixed amongst the Bert and Ernie dolls, figures, and generic rubber duckies were some items exclusive to the show — a T-shirt (no adult sizes — nuts) and a small soccer ball. A friendly usher tore my ticket when my Muppet sense began tingling and right in front of me I spotted a glass case with two real, live Bert and Ernie puppets inside. Seeing Muppets up close and personal is always a lovely experience — being able to closely inspect the careful detail and care with which these familiar characters are crafted. On a definite Muppet high, I happily located my seat.
Inside the theatre, I found myself squarely in the center of an undulating, chattering sea of CHILDREN. Oh yeah… Sesame Street’s for kids, isn’t it? And these kids were jazzed! It did my heart good to feel that 40 year-old characters that I grew up with could still be seen as rock stars to the Pull-Ups set. A polite smile to the boy behind me who was compelled to kick my seat, and we were off!
Now, to preface, this is not a show where Sesame Workshop has shipped puppets off to a regional theatre and entrusted locals to bring the classic characters to life with little to no puppetry experience. Instead, for the first time ever, actors are being allowed to professionally portray Sesame Street characters — no giant foam heads, no orange or yellow facepaint, no false Muppet noses (though I hope for the sake of his friends and family that Bradley Greenwald’s unibrow isn’t real). And Bert and Ernie could not be in better hands, played by Bradley Greenwald and Reed Sigmund, respectively. Greenwald and Sigmund are well respected in the Twin Cities, having been seen together in a memorable production of “A Year With Frog and Toad”, also at CTC. They both have epic shoes to fill — Jim Henson and Frank Oz, who played Ernie and Bert for over 20 years in their heyday, were comic geniuses and close friends. Within the first few minutes, though, it was clear that both actors had nailed the finer points of their characters — Sigmund suitably loose and sloppy as Ernie, and Greenwald perfectly crisp and stately as Bert. Any doubt I had at live actors playing Bert and Ernie (and I must admit, there was some) evaporated as I watched them settle into the rhythms that are so distinctly and idiosyncratically “Bert and Ernie”.
The show is a hybrid of new and classic material, incorporating familiar songs like “I Don’t Want To Live On the Moon”, “Doin’ the Pigeon”, and “Dance Myself To Sleep” (among others), with two new songs, “How Can I Sleep” and “Bert’s Lullaby”. A through-line involving Ernie’s attempt to write a poem gives the show a satisfying arc, but even just watching Greenwald and Sigmund do classic Bert and Ernie sketches would have been a treat. Considerable effort was made to enthrall the young ones while still delighting the older set who came to the theatre with considerable nostalgia in tow. References to Bert’s paperclips, Ernie counting fire engines, and monsters that go “wubba wubba” showed that attention was certainly paid to Sesame Street’s lauded 40-year history (save for one mildly baffling line where Bert tells Ernie to “put the duckie down” — wouldn’t it have been easy to switch around the words and pay homage to one of the biggest Sesame Street hits of the 80’s? But I digress.).
Bert and Ernie are the only actors onstage for the entire 75 minutes, but they are joined by some friends. Puppet pigeons and sheep join the pair for the iconic songs centered around the animals. Delightfully performed by a troupe of teen puppeteers, the puppets lend the show a “Muppety” feel of authenticity. My sources tell me that shortly before opening, Mr. Elmo himself, Kevin Clash conducted a workshop with the young puppeteers and was quite impressed with what he saw. For good reason, too — the entire show, while being uncharted territory for two such seminal characters, is incredibly respectful and affectionate towards its roots.
While enjoying flesh-and-bone portrayals of traditionally felt-and-fur characters, I found myself thinking of the recent recast drama that has been swirling around the Muppet community. Why was I so willing to readily accept two actual humans playing Bert and Ernie, but uncomfortable with Kermit not being portrayed by Steve Whitmire on America’s Got Talent? The answer, I think, lies in intent. By humanizing Bert and Ernie, this portrayal is automatically something different than other Muppet endeavors — it moves into the realm of homage and playing a variation on a theme. It is not asking an audience member to accept Bradley Greenwald as THE Bert — instead, we see him as A Bert. Even a younger audience member can enjoy these actors having a ball pretending to be Bert and Ernie, and then go home and watch the “real” Bert and Ernie, in all their technicolor, fuzzy glory, on television. Tossing an actual puppet to a new performer and asking them to take up the mantle of a legendary character with countless hours of work documenting its history is daunting, and doomed to fail by comparison. Being the first of their kind to portray Bert and Ernie this way, Greenwald and Sigmund are allowed to create fresh, important takes on time-tested characters and allow us to see them in new ways (hey, have YOU ever seen The Pigeon done by a human being? It’s revelatory.). In the end, “Bert and Ernie, Goodnight!” succeeds in balancing the familiar with the fresh, while adding to the history of the characters and not trying to rewrite it.
If you find yourself in the Twin Cities area, get yourself to the Children’s Theatre Company before October 25th and see this wonderful show. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to try to keep the Midwest Muppet renaissance going, and try to convince the Guthrie Theater to stage Fraggle Rock.Special thanks to David Beukema for this fantastic review!
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