Part 1 – Part 2
This review is brought to us by our pal Jamie B! Thanks for being a Muppet fan, British, and up for writing about Muppets in Britain, Jamie!
Thanks for rejoining us for a review of the 2nd half of The Muppets Take the O2! We’ve braved the giant merchandise stall queues during the intermission and are ready to be entertained again.
Hang on; is that a ‘2-minutes-to-go’ video featuring Chip up on the big screens, awkwardly urging everyone to get back in their seats for part 2? Absolutely!
Opening the second half, a live recreation of the Bohemian Rhapsody viral video instantly elevated what had already been a strong show into a genuinely different league. Gonzo and the chickens appeared in a spotlight, soon to be joined by a London Choir which dramatically filled out the stage. Animal absolutely stole audiences’ hearts with his “Mama, Mama, Mama, Dada” routine in one of the best received moments of every show. We just adore that untameable guy over here, and Eric Jacobson knocked the comic timing in his performance adorably out of the park! Sweetums traditionally chases Bobby Moynihan around the auditorium in this number, but, by adding a couple of policemen to the mix, his cries of “Bobby” were changed to “Bobbies!” especially for London.
Piggy also gets a true shining moment center stage as she closes the song in a stunning angel’s outfit, accompanied by a perfectly delivered version of her line “…Nothing really matters… but MOI!”, again from Eric. Later on in the show, Piggy takes an impressively-choreographed battering due to not attending dance rehearsals for her performance of Adele’s ‘Hello’, but this is genuinely her purest performance of the show.
There was also much love for Bunsen and Beaker from UK fans. Dave Goelz was especially flawless as Bunsen each night, and landed my favorite joke of the whole show. He began the Muppet Labs segment each night with the greeting “Hello, Oxygen Arena!” – It was a perfectly-pitched, scientific dig at the venue’s daft name (O2 are a UK phone operator who own the space, by the way, if that helps explain things).
Kevin Bishop, whose profile as an excellent comic actor continues to ride high in the UK, is up next for a spin in the Muppet Kitchen. There was sadly no mention of his Muppet Treasure Island heritage as Jim Hawkins, but I’m confident half the crowd had connected the dots and it was truly brilliant to see him back with his childhood buddies. His old colleague Bill Barretta proved an excellent sparring partner as the Swedish Chef tried to cook Haggis. The Scottish delicacy is made by stuffing a sheep’s stomach with spices but the Muppet sheep in question was still alive, so protests followed!
Adam Hills (the comedic host from Channel 4’s topical talk show ‘The Last Leg’) recently interviewed Kermit and Piggy on UK TV when these live shows were announced, so he became an excellent candidate to star in the show, helming this same sketch for both Saturday shows. With two performances to play with, his comic timing was impeccable and pulled some of the biggest belly laughs of the weekend by siding with the endangered sheep and attempting to sing Chef’s iconic theme song.
We even witnessed our own live equivalent of a true Muppet Show UK spot!! – Rowlf hosted a cockney sing-along with his canine friends around the piano singing ‘Maybe It’s Because I’m a Londoner’. It was a joy to join with and this number kept the audience’s energy high. Rowlf was actually underused at the Bowl, but thanks to the caliber of Bill Barretta’s totally-live vocals here, he was a star addition. The presence of Afghan Hound, one of my favorite puppets ever since Elton John’s Muppet Show piano sing-song, as part of the chorus was a personal delight.
A large portion of the video inserts produced for the Hollywood Bowl were re-aired, including an entire backstage sequence with Fozzie attempting a world record speed-comedy attempt (that still convinced despite having being filmed in a different country!). For Mahna Mahna’s performance, recreating the classic song, a video sequence where he went AWOL mid-act and cruised around the streets of Hollywood was not reshot or included. This time, as he exits without warning and the production number stalls, Scooter calls out to see if there are any pop stars in the audience to join the Snowths and save the bit…
It was a completely magical moment on the first night as they cut to a live shot of the seating, only to see that Kylie Minogue had snuck into the crowd. She sprung up and over to the stage with permission from Scooter to do anything she wanted; she joked about doing a cartwheel, before finishing up the song. The gusto with which she approached filling in for Jim’s trademark noodling grunts was outstanding, and she perfectly married her acting skills with all the vocal prowess expected from her adopted national treasure status. The audience were on her side from the moment she arrived, or even the moment she was announced as a guest.
Steps, who inherited the same popstar-to-the-rescue slot for the Saturday afternoon show, had a tough act to follow! The Abba-esque feel-good song-and-dance pop quintet are not known for their subtlety and, through excitement, regrettably ended up responding to Scooter’s requests to perform the rest of the song rather like they were patronizing a children’s party audience, which is never a wise fit for the Muppets. As an additional blow, only four of the band members showed up! (Lisa Scott-Lee was unfortunately on a family holiday.) The remaining members managed to ham up and step on any nuance that the sketch’s punchline needed to land successfully. However, it’s fair to say this was always going to be a challenge when singing Mahna Mahna en masse! As a band, Steps can and do entertain fantastically when performing their own songs, but here they rather missed their moment to shine (or rather the moment wasn’t really designed for a group performance!!).
Steps were also the only Saturday act that didn’t stick around for the evening show, when Bobby Moynihan proved a better-fit option for the third run of the Mahna Mahna skit. Sure, he wasn’t a popstar, so he initially put up the pretense of being Justin Beiber then Luciano Pavarotti to make the script work (which it did!). He also suitably channeled Jim’s original performance to keep warm memories of the piece intact.
Bobby was also used to even better effect in the second act when reprising his ‘Good Grief, the Comedian’s A Bear’ classic routine with Fozzie from the Bowl, and allowed UK audiences to witness Fozzie at his most adorable.
We’re approaching the end of the setlist, so it’s time for some new blood. Whilst Scooter is trying to fill time with a beatbox solo, Bobo shows up and nearly succeeds in stealing the whole show in the closing minutes! Bobo’s inappropriately-timed inquiries as to the location of his car keys, before asking if Scooter kept the receipt for his Christmas gift pajamas which had since shrunk in the wash, went down a storm (just as they did at the Bowl). After the audience thought he’d gone, it was a delight to see him also crash-land into the next segment where Kermit was attempting to introduce his iconic solo song. It felt like a true bit of spontaneity from the rehearsal rooms had been delightfully left in. Bobo first commented to a spot-lit Kermit-on-a-log about how cute he looked with his banjo, before trying to sit just behind him to watch his performance. He then called out the frog as being selfish for not wanting to share his big moment! Impeccably delivered, especially in the first show, this interruption was followed immediately by the musical moment the whole room was waiting for, as Kermit started strumming Rainbow Connection.
Bobo even admitted to having a few ‘pints’ before his monologues during the 3rd and final performance, (likely just to have fun use the British terminology for a large glass of beer). To be fair, it did seem like the final show’s audience had also followed his lead, making that final Saturday night show a spirited, rowdier affair since audience responses were consistently bigger, warmer, loosened-up and excitable!
This increased level of interactivity from the arena-goers then translated into a spontaneous sea of cellphone flashlights swaying gently to accompany Kermit’s iconic solo number, akin to the response only the most idolized pop stars might receive in that venue. Our frog was more than worthy of that accolade and it was a truly beautiful, intensely moving sight.
Matt’s vocals for this song were pre-recorded to protect Kermit’s consistency, but my goodness it was staggeringly good. Vogel’s singing register is so close to Jim’s original, and the care taken to recall Henson’s classic performance was as pitch-perfect as I think anyone could achieve.
As the full roster of guests from each show joined the last verse for a sing along, I have to mention the joy shown from every guest star at being thrilled to be there. David Tennant in particular in the Friday show, still dressed as the Doctor, looked completely over the moon to be part of a Muppet sing-along, and gave his performance everything, all night.
Kylie appeared during the 2nd verse to perform a proper duet with Kermit on her night, which was rather outstanding. Steps weren’t given the same duet segment in Rainbow Connection in show 2. Those involved wisely chose to let Kermit keep the spotlight for shows 2 and 3, which triggered the purest moment of the O2 Muppets experience, and induced many tears from me and a large portion of the audience.
Critically, this show was a complete home run and, emotionally, everyone behind these performances did just what they set out to do.
I’d be remiss to not report on what felt like major pricing issue, at least ahead of the shows taking place – £450 (around $600) was the price needed for a batch of 4 good seats for experience that many families would categorize as a weekend treat. This was ultimately a problem, even in a Muppet-loving city. Online discounts and the last minute announcement of star guests filled up the venue eventually – the Saturday matinee was happily close to maximum capacity, with the very top deck of the O2 open and full. I completely understand where any advance public skepticism about the concept of the show in suuuuuuch a large venue came from; for most people I spoke to ahead of time, I sensed that the chance to pay £100+ to watch glove puppets in an aircraft hanger didn’t instantly appeal! However, that assumed viewpoint MAJORLY misjudged the scale, immersiveness and completely affecting impact of this show, even from the very back or very top of the hall.
I wish London could have come out in its fullest force for these shows, but wow, the response from those crowds who did fill the space with their noise and devotion was pretty staggering. The energy ahead of and immediately following the encore performance (‘A Little Help from My Friends’ from Dr Teeth and the Mayhem with full choir and cast) was electric, and I hope Disney were attentively listening to the passion and affection generated from those audiences. They were all tuned into the humanity that the Muppets radiate when at their best.
At the 2nd show, I sat next to an approximately 11 year old boy who was especially delighted by the ‘parade of obscure Muppet characters’ segment. He knew Marvin Suggs, Nigel and Beautiful Day monster by name and seemed stoked to be seeing the characters he loved goofing around. I believe these shows will prove to be absolutely crucial in nurturing the next generation of lifelong Muppet devotees; the renewed focus on music, fun and pure emotion has recaptured the true essence of the characters and equally brought out the best in their performers.
Long may this incredible troupe be allowed to continue making people ecstatically happy.
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by Jaime B.