The following review was written by Tough Pigs’ close, personal friend Peter Papazoglou. Here, Peter shares his thoughts on the Jim Henson Company’s live stage musical version of Emmet Otter’s Jugband Christmas, which completed its run at the Goodspeed Opera House in Haddon, Connecticut on January 4. Take it away, Peter!
I have a confession to make. Until a couple of hours ago, I had never seen Emmet Otter’s Jug-Band Christmas. Worse yet, it’s not for lack of opportunity; I’ve had in my possession for over three years now not only the HIT! Entertainment-released DVD (gifted to me by my then-girlfriend, now-fiancé, and sometime-Tough Pigs contributor Leah) but also a copy of the much sought after original cut of the 1977 HBO special.
When I shared my secret with Tough Pigs’ own Joe and Ryan last month, they were, of course, shocked. After all, in certain Muppet fan circles, this surely amounted to nothing less than blasphemy. But luckily for me, they had a touch of the Christmas spirit about them, and rather than run me out of Riverbottom, they took their seats beside me as I was introduced to Russell and Lillian Hoban’s story in a brand new way – on stage.
And having finally seen the television special, I can confirm that Emmet Otter’s Jug-Band Christmas, the new musical produced by the Goodspeed Opera House in association with the Jim Henson Company, adeptly and (for the most part) faithfully adapts its source material.
The story, for those of you fellow cretins unfamiliar with it, tells of Emmet Otter and his ma, Alice, two of the poorest residents of rural Frogtown Hollow, where bartering is common practice and even fifty cents can make a difference. Since the death of Pa Otter, the two have barely managed to sustain themselves with odd jobs and a laundry service. But just as they resign themselves to another year without gifts beneath the Christmas branch, word comes out of nearby and newly electrified Waterville that Doc Bullfrog is hosting a talent contest with a first prize of fifty dollars cash.
In a plot twist that borrows from O. Henry’s short story, “The Gift of the Magi,” Alice and Emmet, both inspired by Pa Otter’s legacy of foolhardiness, decide to enter the contest so they can afford a treasured gift for the other – for him, a guitar with mother of pearl inlays; for her, a down payment on a used piano. But when Alice hocks Emmet’s tool chest to buy fabric for a dress to perform in and Emmet puts a hole in Alice’s only washtub to fashion a makeshift bass for his jug band, they put their only sources of income at risk. So when the Riverbottom Nightmare Band, a devilish but talented rock quintet (whose incongruous style foreshadows the juxtaposition of the funky Electric Mayhem with the vaudevillian setting of The Muppet Show) wins the contest, Emmet and Alice are left to put a brave face on their impending destitution.
This being a Christmas story, all ends well for the Otters when Jane, who had previously sacrificed her place in the talent contest roster to Alice, who had showed up moments too late to register, realizes that the songs performed by Alice (“Our World”) and Emmet’s Frogtown Jubilee Jug Band (“Brothers”) could be performed in counterpoint as “Brothers in Our World,” just in time to convince Doc Bullfrog to hire the newly formed quintet to perform nightly at the Riverside Rest.
What’s that? You don’t remember Jane? Oh, come on. Jane. You know…little girl? About eleven, maybe twelve. Short. Brown hair. Human?
That’s right. Human.
I guess I forgot to mention Jane. You see, it’s Christmas in Jane’s world, too – the first since her mother’s passing – and she’s pushing her father, Russ, away. What has this got to do with Emmet Otter, you ask? Well, it was (conveniently, of course) her favorite book when she was a child, one that her mother had read to her and left a heartfelt inscription in. So when her father suggests he read it to her, she grudgingly concedes.
And before you can say deus ex machina, Jane is magically transported to Frogtown Hollow, where nobody seems to notice that she’s the only one around without her species as a last name. So, quite naturally, she sings a song, solves a plot complication that wouldn’t have existed if she had never showed up in the first place, saves the day, and then – get this! – wakes up.
Yes, ladies and gentlemen, in a plot line lifted straight from a short story I wrote when I was eight years old, in which Alice (of Wonderland fame) fell into the wrong rabbit hole and ended up in Sherwood Forest instead, our heroine wakes up at the end of the story to discover that the whole thing was just a dream; she had never been to Frogtown Hollow at all. What a cop-out.
I want to be clear. What bothers me about Jane is not that Timothy A. McDonald and Christopher Gatelli, who adapted the work for the stage, felt that the story needed a framing device. After all, the original special was bookended by scenes featuring Kermit the Frog, who could obviously not be reused here due to copyright issues. It’s that the playwrights don’t trust their material.
Because the rest Emmet Otter’s Jug-Band Christmas is wonderful and remarkably complex. Like all good Christmas stories, it weaves together themes of commercialism, charity, and sacrifice. But unlike so many stories written for today’s children, its protagonists are passionate and reckless, sympathetic but tart. Its lessons are far from simple; the villains, after all, walk away with first prize. And its grief is real. Emmet and Alice don’t miss Pa in some abstract way; they reminisce about him and obsess about him. They blame him for their predicament and look to him for a way out. Nothing about Emmet Otter is simple, so it’s a testament to the strength of the source material that the play shines in spite of the framing device, which is at best an unnecessary way to give children a way into the story.
It doesn’t hurt, of course, that the production is beautifully designed.
Emmet Otter’s Jug-Band Christmas uses a costume-based approach for the majority of the main characters, who wear full-body outfits that only expose the actors’ make-up laden faces. The costumes, impeccably designed by Gregg Barnes (Fred Lizard, Harrison Fox, and Wendell Porcupine are favorites), achieve the aesthetic of the original puppets while also allowing the actors the physical versatility to perform their roles. The only snag, and it’s a minor one, is that the furry, mittened hands are distracting, pushing the costumes just a bit in the direction of the theme park variety.
More minor characters like Doc Bullfrog, Yancey Woodchuck, and Old Lady Possum are performed as bunraku-style puppets, with their performers either hidden among the scenery or dressed in black against a black background. Doc Bullfrog, in particular, is meticulously recreated and expertly performed by Tyler Bunch. And Yancey Woodchuck is built so that his puppeteer, the talented David Stephens, can effortlessly change from rod-operated hands to live ones to play the banjo on “Barbeque” at the talent show.
The remaining characters are performed as hand puppets based on the original Muppet creations. These include Howard Snake, who is seamlessly handed off from one onstage character to the next; Catfish, who spews water in other characters’ faces after appearing in the most unexpected of locations; George and Melissa Rabbit, and a quartet of gibberish-speaking squirrels who steal the show in their quest to grow a Christmas tree from scratch overnight. Even woodland creatures that appear only momentarily in the television special have been faithfully recreated for the stage: the ducks on the river in “The One Bathing Suit,” the egret at the end of “Ain’t No Hole in the Washtub,” and the owl at the end of “When the River Meets the Sea,” to name a few.
It is of note that while the majority of the puppets were recreated for this production at a larger size, so as to be more easily viewed by the audience, the puppets of Alice and Emmet that bookend the production are, in fact, the refurbished puppets from the original production.
The sets by Anna Louizos are versatile and make adept and surprising use of the small stage, most impressively conveying the illusion of Alice and Emmet rowing along the river on their way to and from Waterville. And the lighting by Brian MacDevitt effectively conveys the woodland mood while also carefully obscuring the puppeteers as necessary, particularly in the talent show climax in the second act.
As with recent adaptations of children’s films, the book and score for Emmet Otter’s Jug-Band Christmas has been expanded in order to fill the longer running time required of a stage musical. Composer/lyricist Paul Williams does an admirable job of matching the style of his new musical numbers to the ones ported over from the original score. And the revisions to the book do quite a bit to flesh out the history of Alice and Pa Otter, explaining, for example, the significance of Emmet’s wanting to give his mother a piano for Christmas. The additional material also serves to more fully develop the residents of Waterville and Riverbottom. And while the television special is remarkably efficient in its exposition, the pacing in the musical is definitely an improvement over the original, which now feels a little rushed by comparison.
Although there is some consolidation of minor characters (Yancey Woodchuck, for example, serves as the fruit stand owner in the stage version; and Will Possum’s role has been greatly reduced, split between Yancey and Old Lady Possum), only Shirley and Nat Muskrat (and their act, Carrots the Dancing Horse) appear to have been cut entirely. Most minor roles have been expanded, especially musically. Harrison Fox, performs the bouncy new song “Waterville” ; his jealous wife, Gretchen, attempts to sabotage the talent show with an incognito aria; and the heretofore unnamed Mrs. Mink gets two musical numbers – the brand new “At the Music Store,” the most lackluster and, frankly, unnecessary of the additional songs (which was also hindered by unfortunate staging that caused her to be constantly upstaged by the set), and the delightfully burlesque “Born in a Trunk,” which was written and recorded for but ultimately cut from the original special. Even Jane gets to sing with the scene-stealing squirrels, and “Trust” is one of those moments where you almost forget that she doesn’t belong in the story in the first place.
Aside from Jane and Russ, two brand new characters round out the cast. The first, Madame Squirrel, now leads the formerly haphazard acrobatic squirrels. The more notable addition, however, is the ghost Pa Otter, who appears to sing the lovely ballad, “Alice, Keep Dreaming,” when his widow has been disqualified from competing in the talent contest and is at her lowest. Tony Award nominee Alan Campbell, who appropriately doubles as Russ, captures Pa’s mischievous and compassionate spirit in his subtle, understated performance.
The rest of the cast is similarly talented, bringing vitality to roles that could easily suffer under the weight of their costumes or become mere caricatures. It is, unfortunately, the younger characters who have the most trouble. Instead of seeming like children, Daniel Reichard as Emmet, Jeff Hiller as Charlie Muskrat, and Daniel Torres as Harvey Beaver, all seem a little older, at least in part because of their height. And in trying to play the correct age, they sometimes come off as slower than they ought to be.
Out of the Frogtown Jubilee Jug Band, only the intentionally dimwitted Wendell Porcupine is spared this fate, in part because performer Robb Sapp so fully captures the character and voice created by Dave Goelz. Still, they all do admirable jobs, and their performances, especially Reichard’s, ring emotionally true if a little physically and vocally awkward.
And finally, even though it is, by definition, Emmet Otter’s Jug-Band Christmas, the show at the Goodspeed Opera House belonged to understudy Lisa Howard as Alice Otter, a role usually played by Cass Morgan (Howard usually performs Gretchen Fox). If Reichard’s Emmet runs a bit on the older side, Howard’s Alice is a more youthful creation than Frank Oz and Marilyn Sokol’s original, artfully melding the character’s maturity with an impish playfulness on display in numbers like “Ain’t No Hole in the Washtub.” Howard inhabits the role completely and is especially heartbreaking in “When the River Meets the Sea” (arguably the best song in Paul William’s score), in which she sings, in her lilting soprano, of birth fulfilling itself in death, invoking the truest meaning of Christmas.:
Like a baby when it is sleeping
In its loving mother’s arms
What a newborn baby dreams is a mystery
But his life will find a purpose
And in time he’ll understand
When the river meets the sea
Word on the street is that Emmet Otter’s Jug-Band Christmas may return as a perennial Christmas performance, with the hope of expanding nationally. If the production at the Goodspeed Opera House is any indication, it’s poised to be a classic. Let’s just hope its creators trust the story of Emmet and Alice Otter to tell itself, unencumbered by the modern trappings that threatened to drag down the first incarnation of this beautiful tale.
Our thanks to Peter for his review. Click here to discuss the Emmet Otter musical on the Tough Pigs forum!