The following article was written by real-life married couple and Muppet geeks Staci Rosen and Ryan Roe!
Staci: Let’s see… we once woke up early on a Saturday to watch a screening of the 3-hour long batty Julie Andrews movie musical Star, we have exactly two photos of our families next to more than 50 Henson-created characters adorning our walls, and until we got married, we maintained two Netflix subscriptions (because while relationships come and go, streaming is forever!). So yeah, I’d say that’s a fair statement.
Ryan: Well, that should be all the proof anyone needs! So naturally, when we heard about Julie’s Greenroom, the new children’s series on the aforementioned Netflix, starring the aforementioned Julie Andrews, and produced by the aforementioned Jim Henson Company, we knew we would be watching it together.
Staci: Having watched the first three episodes, let’s talk about what we think so far.
Ryan: And let’s efficiently organize our thoughts into categories!
Staci: I love efficiency and organization!
Ryan: Going in, all I really knew was that the show would be about Julie Andrews teaching some big-headed puppet kids called Greenies about the arts. But I didn’t expect such a thoughtfully conceived premise. It would have been easy to just have the Greenies show up and Julie Andrews start yakkin’ at them every episode, but the first show sets up a reason that things are happening the way they are. It’s not exactly Lost, but it’s something.
In the first episode, Ms. Julie is all ready to lead her newest crop of Greenroom kids in putting on a production of The Wizard of Oz at the Wellspring Center for the Performing Arts, but a flood in the basement destroys all the props and costumes. Which gives them a reason to create their own musical from scratch. Which gives them a reason to learn about every aspect of creating a musical, from writing to singing to never saying the name “MacBeth” in the theater. (Disclaimer: I don’t know if they actually cover that last one.) And now we’ll have to watch the whole season because we want to see if they manage to pull of their production of Mash-up the Musical!
Staci: Putting aside that “Wellspring Center” sounds like an old-age home, I agree that the format works, especially the parts where Julie gets to take a break from all the action to tend to various technical and administrative tasks. “Ms. Julie has to call the plumber” is a great way to let Julie Andrews grab a donut off-camera. Also, about the show within the show: the villain is “an ogre who wants to steal the arts?” Is that life imitating art or vice versa?
Ryan: Unintentionally topical! Random Muppet geek thought: It occurs to me that “Let’s put on our own musical!” is not entirely different from the “Let’s put on our own TV show!” concept of the ill-fated Little Muppet Monsters. Maybe the crucial ingredient missing from that show was Julie Andrews. Hey, let’s talk about her next!
Staci: Watching Julie perform post-1997 (when a botched throat nodule surgery stripped her of her angelic singing voice) is a complicated experience for the Julie Andrews fan. Yes, she’s as effervescent as ever and a stunner at 81, but Julie Andrews’ voice is an inextricable component of the gestalt of who Julie is to so many of us.
Ryan: Inextricable, yes. Gestalt, absolutely. I definitely know what those words mean.
Staci: I’m so incredibly happy for Julie that she has pushed through her post-surgery depression and continues to perform after her comeback in The Princess Diaries, but at the same time it’s hard for a fan to not mourn that loss when she’s in close proximity to a piano.
Ryan: She may not be able to hit high notes like she used to, but Greenroom should cement her position as the lady everyone wishes were their grandmother. Although it’s worth noting that she doesn’t seem to be playing herself, legendary actress Julie Andrews. She’s playing a fictional character named Ms. Julie.
Staci: Well, she hasn’t yet said anything akin to “When I beat Audrey Hepburn for the Golden Globe and then won the Oscar in 1965,” so you’re probably right.
Ryan: Right. She’s just a lady with the same first name. Like Bob Newhart did on The Bob Newhart Show, like Mary Tyler Moore did on The Mary Tyler Moore Show, and like Raven-Symone did on That’s So Raven.
Staci: All-time classics!
Ryan: There are five kids attending Ms. Julie’s theater workshop. Let’s start with Peri, the extremely enthusiastic, showbiz-loving one performed by Stephanie D’Abruzzo. I think anyone who has ever been involved in any kind of theater work has known a Peri, and D’Abruzzo does a great job of keeping her appealing, but not grating like that one girl I knew in high school.
Staci: Peri immediately reminded me of Miranda Cosgrove’s character in School of Rock meets Glee’s Rachel Berry. Also, I hope I wasn’t “the Peri” at my theater camp…
Ryan: There’s also Hank, performed by John Tartaglia. Hank is in a wheelchair, which is commented on, but so far hasn’t been a big deal, which is cool. He’s also a great piano player, which is pretty lucky for Ms. Julie because that means she doesn’t have to hire an accompanist for rehearsals.
Staci: Or invest in a piano bench.
Ryan: Spike (Frankie Cordero) is an inquisitive kid who seems like he’s destined to be the writer, and Riley (Jennifer Barnhart) is shy and mostly interested in the tech aspects of theater. Finally, there’s Fizz (Dorien Davies), who’s sort of… well, she’s sort of the dumb one. She says dumb things.
Staci: Like pronouncing “bandage” as “bandy-age–” in two different episodes!
Ryan: That’s an authentic kid thing, isn’t it? I don’t know. I think I have a higher tolerance for kid characters who talk funny than most people do, as evidenced by my lack of hatred for Baby Bear. Anyway, I find Fizz endearing, perhaps because the Fizz puppet is pleasantly cross-eyed.
Speaking of which, the Greenies are pretty visually appealing, without looking too much like Muppets. They remind me of the puppets from that Scooby-Doo puppet special a few years ago, although I don’t think Henson had anything to do with building those. Also, I’m not a puppet expert, so I probably have no idea what I’m talking about, but some of them seem to have more expressive faces than others… like Spike’s mouth seems more flexible than Peri’s.
Staci: Yeah, I noticed that too. They also have a variety of eye styles, with Spike’s being particularly distinctive from the rest with those beady little black eyes that remind me of the creepy babies from The Muppet Show and Muppets Take Manhattan.
Ryan: There are two other puppet regulars: Toby the dog (John Kennedy), who is cute but hasn’t gotten to do much yet, and Hugo the Duck. I’m going to give him his own section!
Staci: Why a duck? Why not?!
Ryan: Here’s a question that often comes up in reviews of new puppet productions: “Why puppets?” Well, Hugo is a big part of that answer for this show, because it would be pretty hard to train a real duck to dance and do pantomime. Hugo doesn’t talk, he just quacks, but performer Tyler Bunch makes those some pretty expressive quacks. And when in doubt, the show can always cut to him doing something silly.
Staci: I wonder if there will be an origin story in which we learn how Gus the human, who can communicate with Hugo, decided to take duck language classes at Wesleyan.
Ryan: As long as it also explains where Hugo studied English!
Staci: OK, so in the opening scene you notice posters of classic and/or highly acclaimed Broadway musicals on the walls: Cats, Fiddler on the Roof, Hamilton… and then, in prime wall real estate just behind Julie’s desk, you see the poster for If/Then. I was immediately confused and said aloud, “Only three people went to see If/Then on Broadway, and I was one of them!”
Halfway through the show it made sense; Idina Menzel (the musical’s star) was the first celebrity guest! I have enjoyed Adele Dazeem since her Rent days, so it was fun to see her featured. It’s weird though that the show tells you the real-life history of the performers in a bio-montage and yet it also purports that these stars started their theater careers as members of Julie’s Greenroom, which is A LIE!
Ryan: Yeah, it seems like an unnecessary detail to establish that all the guest stars, who are real people, used to be Greenies. Maybe the writers felt like they had to explain why all these celebrities are so willing to show up and spend their valuable time talking to little kids? Wouldn’t they all just show up because Julie Andrews asked them to? But I guess they wouldn’t just show up for non-famous British lady Ms. Julie.
Staci: Yeah, the truth is that I’m sure Idina Menzel, Chris Colfer and Josh Groban were legitimately inspired by Julie Andrews when they were children.
Ryan: Who wasn’t? We’re all Greenies!
Staci: The first song of the series, “I Know That You’ll Get There Somehow,” immediately appealed to me. The melody is jaunty and the lyrics so clever that I had to look up who wrote it. I was delighted to learn that it was my favorite cabaret writers, Marcy Heisler and Zina Goldrich! I love these women so much that I not only insisted Ryan and I perform one of their songs at our wedding reception, but I also purchased tickets to a show of theirs last year without realizing (until a couple hours before) that the theater was not in NYC, but in a town in Virginia. Oops!
It seems that the songs are commissioned by a variety of writers, so we can expect a potpourri of musical styles. Idina got a pop ballad by Tom Kitt, and Josh Groban belted out a soulful number with jazz and gospel influences by wife and husband team Nell Benjamin and Larry O’Keefe.
Ryan: I’m impressed with the songs so far, including the theme song by Sesame Street alum Bill Sherman. There have been two original songs in every episode so far, which is quite a feat for a show not called Fraggle Rock (or Crazy Ex-Girlfriend).
Staci: I love Ms. Julie’s right-hand man Gus (played by Giullian Yao Gioiello)–less for what he is, and more for what he isn’t. It would be so easy (and common) on a children’s show such as this to cast an over-the-top human performer that over-emotes in that Disney-Channel-child-star way (you know the type; they enunciate way too clearly and have exaggerated facial expressions that could give Jim Carrey’s elastic face a run for its money).
Instead, Gus is so perfectly understated in his reactions to the characters that I find myself marveling at his subtlety in every scene he’s in. He actually seems like a real person (who happens to have a beautiful singing voice to boot). Looking forward to seeing whether Gus becomes a more developed character or if he will simply be the the voice of reason when the children are experiencing conflicts.
Ryan: I hadn’t really appreciated that about Gus, but you’re right. It’s nice to see a show for kids where the young human host isn’t like “HEY, KIDS! LET’S SING A SONG!” He’s more like, “Hey. Wanna sing a song?” Does that come across in print?
Ryan: I feel like I’ve learned a few things about the arts already. In addition to Ms. Julie, Gus, and the guests telling the kids what’s up about the topic of the day, each episode has also featured a segment that takes place away from the Greenroom — a profile of a boys’ choir, or even a field trip to the Broadway theater that Wicked calls home. These segments kind of remind me of when Mr. Rogers would leave his house and go out into the world to a bakery so we could learn all about bread, or whatever.
Staci: Beyond the theater arts material, there are a lot of lessons about conquering fears, trying new things, and (presumably, in future episodes) assorted other challenges that young people face.
Ryan: I just hope it doesn’t teach kids to expect Josh Groban to show up and sing an encouraging song the next time they’re feeling low.
Ryan: Yes! I would expect no different from a show with Joey Mazzarino on the creative team, but Greenroom falls into the “Kids’ show that tries not to be boring for parents” category. That includes some nifty jokes, like Hugo riffing on Hamlet’s soliloquy with a duck skull, or the scene where all the Greenies are straining to come up with an idea for their musical and Peri grunts “Gapatchka!” while Spike groans “Chumba… wamba!” Maybe I’m easy to please, but these things made me laugh.
Staci: I definitely agree Hugo is funny for adults, and most of the stuff I chuckled at involved his antics. But I imagine little kids will laugh most at Fizz and her spaciness. And actually, although the show looks kind of like a sitcom, I think older kids will probably care less about the comedy and more about the kid characters with problems and insecurities they can identify with.
Ryan: I like this show! I’ll keep watching so I can get to the exciting series finale when Edna Brightful, the famous patron of the arts, shows up to see the musical and decide whether she’ll support Ms. Julie’s theater. And it would be cool if there’s a second season. Maybe with a new team of Greenies? Or maybe they switch from teaching about the arts to teaching about something else, like construction. They could could do an episode on riveting, an episode on how to operate a crane…
Staci: Have fun watching the construction show without me. But I’ll be there if the curtain goes up on a second season of Julie’s Greenroom!
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by Staci Rosen and Ryan Roe