Part 1 – Part 2
This article was guest written by ToughPigs friend Jamie B! Thanks Jamie for sacrificing a little of your time to watch the Muppets live!
London Calling, with a report on the Muppets’ latest foray into throwing giant concerts! Our city’s connection with The Muppets runs deep, thanks to every The Muppet Show and half of the theatrical movies being shot here. So, being chosen as the second stop for roadtesting the Muppets’ live extravaganza does makes a lot of sense, yet what a complete honour and thrill it was to have them drop by.
I was deeply lucky enough to have been able to make the pilgrimage out to the Hollywood Bowl for last year’s shows and it was an experience of a lifetime! This time, since they’d basically shown up on my doorstep, I didn’t hesitate to jump into a trio of shows at London’s O2 to witness whether the magic, last seen outdoors, could be recaptured inside a giant dome, without a Fireworks Finale to assist. I hope I can both paint a fresh picture of these newest live adventures and draw comparisons with the updated material to highlight the new surprises.
The performers are thrillingly visible on stage for nearly the whole 2 hour show, working standing up whilst the show recorded on the big screens as if it was a TV show. Puppeteers wore black and donned face veils only when they were likely to be seen on screen in full body shots to help keep the illusion. As a dual-experience; watching the TV screens was completely enchanting because you could simultaneously see the finished, magical end product alongside witnessing the source of the performance, impressive even at a distance. Gonzo made a point to apologise for how small he was early on, and gags about mainly watching the screen at a live gig were well-judged, since the audience were already absolutely in the moment.
The full Muppeteer cast stayed almost identical to the Bowl line up with the 6 core performers, Matt Vogel, Dave Goelz, Eric Jacobson, Bill Barretta, David Rudman and Peter Linz all present for their characters, along with players like Tyler Bunch, Noel MacNeal, Julianne Buescher, Karen Prell, Mike Quinn and Ryan Dillon reprising their vital supporting roles. I can’t begin to tell you how effortless the core troupe appear with their characters, and that’s even when you can actually see how hard they are working! I have to call out David Rudman as Scooter and Bill Barretta as Rowlf espeically for being so fluid and comfortable in their roles whenever on stage. We were watching characters we loved and not recasts without exception.
Unlike the Bowl shows, which all featured SNL’s Bobby Moynihan as main guest along with a small Paul Williams cameo, we had been promised a sea of celebrities. Announced just the previous week were Kylie Minogue, David Tennant, Charles Dance, Kevin Bishop, Peter Davison, Anthony Head, Adam Hills and Steps, due to appear across either of the two days – Different acts on different nights was a both a masterstroke and a source of frustration for those who could only attend one show, since some of them are certainly more A-list than others (more on that later!). As much as the situation was likely down to logistics and prior-commitments in securing the acts they managed, it DID also encourage multiple tickets to be purchased at the last minute to mop up the last remaining seats discounted seats (I’ll get to that too!).
On to the show!!
The first “Hubba-Wha?” of the night was when Kermit announced Bobby Moynihan as the special guest!! He’d been absent from all promotional materials, largely (I’d wager) because his reputation is nearly invisible here due to SNL‘s low profile on UK TV. However, his appearance makes TOTAL sense from a production standpoint. With only three days of rehearsals on London turf to reconstruct the show here, they were going to need a pair of safe hands from the States who already knew the show and could help knit it together. Bobby’s involvement in sketches and links at the Bowl was so deep and would have meant a lot of rewriting to remove his role. Luckily, he’s incredibly funny. His presence allowed for a smooth ride and any concerns from the crowd (as to who this guy actually was) melted away as he got numerous early laughs. I’d say it was a situation akin to not knowing a Muppet Show guest on the classic show when introduced (as often happened to audiences on both sides of the pond), only to be won over by their charming first number.
The billed guest stars, with barely any rehearsals, dropped into the show at very specific points, giving the show an unpredictable edge-of-seat dynamic.
Despite two Doctor Who actors being mentioned in advance, I definitely hadn’t twigged that they might be performing IN CHARACTER within the show. Surprisingly, a familiar Tardis sound interrupted a Pigs In Space sketch 10 minutes into the first night, followed by David Tennant, complete with his Tenth Doctor outfit and sonic screwdriver! The O2 went suitably wild for this, and happily the rest of the sketch more than delivered on the promise. David brought all his trademark energy and flair to the role and looked genuinely delighted to be there.
Peter Linz was also exceptional at recreating Jim’s Link Hogthrob, and the plot unfolded with Link regenerating into Muppet versions of ALL thirteen doctors, culminating as Piggy dressed as upcoming Doctor, Jodie Whittaker! The speedy cycle through each doctor’s incarnation on screen was completely amazing, as was the character casting. Highlights included Sam Eagle as a dramatic William Hartnell, Fozzie as a goofy Tom Baker, Scooter as a straight-laced Peter Davison and Rizzo (in his only, brief appearance in the show) as Christopher Eccelston’s leather-jacketed Doctor. There’s gigantic room for a spin off here, and the two brands’ fandoms fit together perfectly (Not least due to having very male-dominated casts during their first 50ish years!).
And thanks to some extra generous YouTubers, here’s video of Tennant’s appearance during the first performance!
Tennant was a one-show-only star engagement, but Peter Davison was similarly well received on the Saturday, delivering the same material via his rather calmer take on the Doctor.
In a post-sketch scene, the excited Doctor, still having too much fun, loiters around onstage despite Scooter’s best efforts to usher him off. This allowed for a killer gag for fans – the classic pre-regeneration line “I don’t want to go” was hilariously dropped into the Doctor’s protests – This worked better with Tennant’s Doctor, admittedly (since it was his line originally!) but Davison stuck to the same script too, completing this Whovian love letter.
The segment genuinely oozed love from everyone involved, even to the point of naming the episodes differently for each specific Doctor – The Stolen Mirth after Tennant’s ‘The Stolen Earth’ and Mirthshock after Davison’s classic episode ‘Earthshock.’ It was a dream collaboration, thrilling both fandoms, with much more to offer if Disney and the BBC ever see a chance to go deeper.
Happily, all the freshly-added localised content like this played consistently brilliantly to London crowds and there was mountains of it! I think nearly every sketch was infiltrated by regional references and it felt great!
Sam Eagle opened the show with topical gags about the UK and the USA’s ‘special relationship’ (whilst Trump was simultaneously on UK soil). A British policeman puppet moved Gonzo along after his trumpet solo at the end of the opening arches segment, and it wasn’t long before Rowlf was belting out the names of a host of London Underground tube stops whilst singing ‘I’ve Been Everywhere’ at his piano (replacing the Californian locations last year).
Subtle changes made all the difference – ‘On the Road Again’ was again sung by Kermit, Fozzie and Walter as part of the opening medley, but instead of being flanked by singing cactuses, they were replaced by orchids and daffodils in an attempt to de-Americanize the piece, and the big screen animation had been replaced with UK landmarks. Croakapella, Robin’s Frog Scouts vocal group also did a superbly-pathetic version of ‘London Calling’ by The Clash!
Statler and Waldorf’s brand of geriatric humour in pre-filmed inserts were exceptionally well received too, especially when suggesting that they’d be better off in a box at Highgate cemetery than at the O2. After Fozzie’s comedy routine, they joked that he’d be off to Buckingham Palace tomorrow to make the guards not laugh. Every local reference was relished!
England had crashed out of the World Cup Semi Finals just two days earlier so a very savvy last-minute skit was added with a talking football so Kermit and Scooter could continuously get the finer points of football rather wrong causing further upset. Mike Quinn revealed on Twitter that he’d be asked to do the skit with no rehearsal, earlier that day, but he aced it! When Kermit then asked for a cheer for how well the England team had done, the appreciative roar from the crowd was an easy instant-win for audience participation levels.
Not being the Hollywood Bowl, we had no giant orchestra! Pepe had a fantastic skit with conductor Thomas Wilkins last year where he stole Wilkins’ conducting job, but this segment now needed a rethink! This time, Game of Thrones’ Charles Dance and Buffy the Vampire Slayer’s Anthony Head were employed as true British gents to add some culture by reciting Wordsworth poetry whilst accompanied by fine art projections. It was now Pepe’s self-appointed job to turn it into a dance party, by poking holes in the stuffiness.
Anthony Head (or Anything Head, from Buzzy the Umpire, as Pepe preferred to call him), had two bites of the cherry, performing at both Saturday shows and got the chance to hone his performance expertly.
To allow the performers a brief rest (it’s very easy to forget the myriad of characters are largely covered by 6 people), short videos were interspersed throughout the performance. A big winner was a Netflix-esuque streaming platforms spoof (though Kermit had always thought streaming platforms were already called lilypads…).
The Walking Bread with Swedish Chef was repeated from the bowl, but Pepe’s previous Kardashian spoof was dropped for more regional content – a spoof based on UK series Googlebox (A format show where you watch other people watching their TVs) was called Frogglebox! Kermit tried to explain reproduction and circle of life habits to Robin whilst watching Green Planet (Blue Planet). Then, Bunsen explained conspiracy theories and terrorized Beaker whilst watching Black Meeper (Black Mirror) and Masterchef became Monsterchef to allow for Big Mean Carl to eat some bunnies. The audience adored each and every spoof name (including those that whizzed by in the scrolling bar’s thumbnails – Rizzo starred in Pestworld and Gonzo and the Chickens in Poultry Towers) and proved that an appetite is there for more like it if Disney’s streaming platforms want to offer up a lily-pad or two that the Muppets can call home again.
Closing the first half, The Electric Mayhem play a sensational 3 song set opening with ‘Can You Picture That’, followed by The Lumineers song ‘Ho Hey’ (new to the show, replacing ‘Home’ from the Bowl and Outside Lands setlists). They closed the first half with ‘Suffragette City’, which satisfied greatly in David Bowie’s home town. The performers are totally hidden behind their classic TMS band stage set during the Mayhem sequence which allows for total immersion and a brilliant suspension of reality – Being at a Mayhem gig for 10 minutes was complete magic and it left the audience on a high for the interval…
Hey, an intermission! To the merch stall….
Click here for part 2 of our in-depth review of The Muppets Take the O2!
Click here to skip across the pond to the ToughPigs forum!
by Jamie B.