ToughPigs Roundtable: Emmet Otter Stage Show

Published: December 27, 2021
Categories: Feature, Reviews

This holiday season, a live stage musical based on Jim Henson’s classic Emmet Otter’s Jug Band Christmas went up at the New Victory Theater in New York City. In our excitement, a few of us local ToughPigs writers got together to see the show together – you know, as a family. Unfortunately, the Omicron Variant had other plans, and our theater-going experience was unfortunately cut short.

Thankfully, the New Victory was already planning on releasing a stream of Emmet Otter online, so while we weren’t able to watch it together in person, we still gathered (virtually) to watch and review the musical for you all.

If you’re in the NYC area, you can still see the show in-person through January 2nd. For the rest of us, we can rent the taped version and watch it on-demand from anywhere in the world! Be forewarned: This review will be spoiler-heavy!

Well, what did we think of the stage show?

Joe Hennes: I liked it a lot, but mostly because I love the original Emmet Otter TV special so very much.  I was lucky enough to see the stage show live a few years back, and the entire experience was a delight from start to finish.  The filmed version of the stage show is my least favorite of the three options, but I think it stands as a fun homage to that special that we’re all so familiar with.

Louie Pearlman: Overall, I loved it! It was a strong adaptation of such a charming and timeless story. It was fun to revisit Emmet, Ma, and their friends in such a fleshed-out context. The new songs worked, and so did most of the new plot points.

Shane Keating: Meh. I wish it grabbed or enticed me more; it felt much more “for little kids” than the original special did.

Evan G.: I love the original special so much, so nothing’s going to ever compare. Still, it was a well-produced show with a lot of cute touches, and was definitely enjoyable overall.

Matthew Soberman: I thought it was rather pleasant. There’s something about the down-home feel of the special that always felt ripe for a stage adaptation, and for what it’s worth, it’s rather faithful to its source material. I wouldn’t say it surpasses that, but it’s a cute show.

How well did the adaptation from TV-to-stage work?

Joe: It worked… well.  Adaptations are hard to get right.  Usually because they only make adaptations of works that are already so popular, audiences demand to see more. But when a book or movie or TV special hits that level of quality, it’s impossible to capture the same lightning in a bottle.  So with that in mind, this new version did what it set out to do, but it did not manage the impossible.

Louie: Something I appreciate about the original special is its brevity. It tells a concise and powerful story, and its economic length has to do with that. For the most part, this show keeps the brisk pace of the TV special, but where it feels the most off with a few new elements that drag down the plot.

Shane: I don’t think there’s any aspect of the story that got ruined by the transition; aside from some character changes and new songs, it was basically a 1:1 translation of the special. I will say, the recurring squirrels reminded me of the Minions, and not in a good way.

Matthew: I agree with Shane: aside from some additions, it’s mostly a straightforward adaptation. I think the relatively short (75 minute) runtime is likely to hold youngsters’ attention, and keeps it from getting too far away from the story. But as a stage production is free from the constraints of commercial breaks or time slots, if you’re looking for it to build on the special, you may come away disappointed. And yeah, those squirrels can get pretty annoying after one or two appearances.

Did you have a favorite moment/song from the stage show?

Louie: I loved how “When the River Meets the Sea” was positioned as the centerpiece for this show. Even more so than in the TV special. It’s such a stunningly perfect song, and having it not only sung near the beginning of the show and near the end but also an upbeat version of the curtain call was a real treat.

Shane: I liked seeing “Bar-B-Que” being done by the puppet versions of the characters.

Joe: Agreed with Shane – “Bar-B-Que” is a highlight of both the TV and the stage version. Seeing it performed by both the puppets (built to look exactly like the originals) and the actors in costume.  It made me wish we could’ve seen twelve or thirteen different renditions of “Bar-B-Que”.

Evan: The puppets, in general, were amazing. I’m enough of a sucker for nostalgia that I appreciated certain callbacks, like the inclusion of the heron at sunset.

Matthew: Would it be odd to say that they brought back the “fall off the dock” line? I know it hasn’t been in some recent releases of the special (I still watch a Kermit-free DVD), but I still think it’s funny to see that tiny crack in Alice’s niceness 

What was one of your favorite moments from the stage show that didn’t appear in the original special?

Matthew: At long last, “Born in a Trunk” finally gets its due! While it’s slightly jarring to see it turned into a bawdy burlesque number, it just tickled me to finally see this song get turned into a full number.

Evan: Agree on “Born in a Trunk.” It was hilarious, especially the way Ms. Possum got into it on the piano.

Louie: The song that our man Paul Williams himself as the force ghost of Pa Otter sang to Ma Otter? That was beautiful and made me cry. He is such a phenomenal singer and songwriter. Emmet Otter really is nothing without the mastery of Paul Williams.

Joe: I mean, that’s the one.  Hearing Paul Williams’ voice come out of that puppet was a surprisingly emotional moment.  But if I had to choose a second, it’s right at the beginning, the first time we see Emmet and Ma in puppet form.  The nostalgia is strong.

Shane: I thought the deer in the spotlight of the talent show was a humorous addition.

What from the original special didn’t transfer over to the stage quite so well?

Louie: The whole talent show seemed poorly paced and somewhat lifeless in this version, and it’s such a breath of fresh comedic air in the original special. Unfortunately, the pacing of Mayor Fox sarcastically MCing in this one takes all the fun out of it. If he wasn’t excited to see all the acts, why did he throw the talent contest in the first place? It didn’t make much narrative sense and wasn’t as funny as it needed to be to actually work.

Shane: I’d agree with Louie. That whole sequence felt kinda off.

Joe: I gotta disagree here – I loved the talent show sequence, and I thought Mayor Fox’s exasperation was a solid kicker.  One thing that didn’t transfer at all was Emmet Otter’s voice.  Every other character did a reasonable imitation of the voices from the original, but it’s unrealistic to expect an adult actor to convincingly recreate Jerry Nelson’s child-like voice.  This was painfully apparent especially when the old puppets were used – it just felt wrong hearing that voice through little Emmet.

Evan: I agree with Joe, and I’ll take it a step further: both Ma and Emmet weren’t great casting. They’re both excellent actors, but Emmet read as too old and cynical, and Ma was trying too hard to be identical to Marilyn Sokol. The sweet spot for them would’ve been somewhere in the middle, and this wasn’t it.

Matthew: All of these are valid choices, so I’ll nitpick and say the barter dialogue between Alice and Will Possum comes later in the story during the play. I always liked how it helps to set up the friendships and community of the folks on the river, and it feels out of place when they do it in Waterville.

What from the original special didn’t make it into the stage show at all?

Louie: We couldn’t get a drum rolling out of the music store as the Riverbottom Nightmare band exits? That would have been a great nod to a sequence that was infamously hard to shoot from the original special!

Evan: I was sure, with the longer runtime, they’d use the drum scene to establish more about the Nightmare Band, and instead it’s gone completely? Likewise, “Born in a Trunk” doesn’t work as well as it should because we don’t see Ms. Mink being so uptight when the band menaces her store.

Shane: They cut short “Riverbottom Nightmare Band!” But the fact that they still won despite their song being a verse shorter proves that they are still awesome.

Joe: Is it weird to say “Kermit”?  This version of the story replaced him with another frog – Doc Bullfrog – as the narrator.  But for some reason it lacked a punch, possibly because he was both inside and outside the story at the same time.  (It’s still better than the bookend segments from the first iteration of the stage show, which featured a human woman entering the world of Waterville, Wizard of Oz-style.)

Matthew: Win a few, lose a few, right, drum?

What did you think of the puppets/human hybrid cast?

Joe: Great in concept, but by the end, I didn’t love seeing the actors in overstuffed animal hybrid costumes.  The designs felt a little too distanced from their original designs, and by the end I just felt bad for the actors, who were likely feeling pretty sweaty.

Matthew: This was the hardest part of the production to wrap my head around. I get having human actors, and I get having puppets, but I didn’t like how some characters had both human and puppet forms, sometimes transitioning in the same scene. It’s fine to set up the “rules” of the show’s reality, but it loses something when it doesn’t follow them.

Evan: I didn’t understand the actors’ face paint, which didn’t even match the facial colorations of the puppets.

Louie: I loved the mixture of the puppets and the live performers! I felt that the transitions between some characters played as both puppets and humans worked strikingly well and felt magical. I actually wish there had been a bit more back-and-forth between the puppet versions of the Jug Band and the actual actors.

Shane: I think it worked best when they had ways of making the puppets somewhat leveled with the human performers (like standing behind a fruit stand or fence). Seeing a full-sized Emmet next to, say, Doc Bullfrog who is standing on just the floor and looks a fourth of his size doesn’t help the illusion.

What were your favorite Easter eggs? 

Louie: The next time I get into an accident, I definitely want Nelson, Goelz, and Hunt: Attorneys at Paw representing me!

Shane: I’m especially impressed that they recreated the ducks and egret from the rowing numbers and had them appear at the same time they show up in the special.

Joe: There were so many good Easter eggs!  But the most satisfying by far was Emmet’s reaction to Old Lady Possum’s broken fence: “Hubba Wha?!”

Evan: I’m partial to the “Hubba-Wha,” but maybe I’m biased.

Matthew: Above the Nelson, Goelz, and Hunt sign, the initials “CB & JH.”  While I can’t say I know who “C.B.” is, “J.H.” clearly honors Jim Henson, and I’m so glad there’s an Easter egg honoring Jim alongside his fellow performers. What I’m less glad about is that Frank Oz seems to have been omitted from these references. Without Frank, we wouldn’t have Chuck Stoat, and Alice would just be a vocal track!

Joe (again): We’d be remiss not to point out “Miss Marilyn Mink’s Musical Emporium” (presumably named for the original voice of Ma Otter, Marilyn Sokol), Williams Opera House (named for Paul Williams), and “Hoban Books” (named for the author and illustrators of the original Emmet Otter book, Russell and Lillian Hoban), all of which can be seen in the “Waterville” number. What other Easter eggs did we miss??

Final note: Would you recommend this show to your fellow Muppet fans?

Joe: Do you love Emmet Otter?  If so, you really have to see the stage version.  In person, if possible, but the one you can see streaming online will do just fine.  It’s just a love letter to the original special 

Louie: Absolutely! It has so much heart and is so fun and touching. I hope that this production becomes an annual thing for the New Victory, so we can revisit our pals in Frogtown Hollow every December.

Shane: Even though I wasn’t crazy about it, I would suggest Muppet fans, especially ones with young kids of their own, give it a look-see.

Matthew: Look, if you like the special, odds are you’ll probably enjoy this. I can’t say it really breaks new ground in terms of narrative, but it’s a cozy way to enjoy a very familiar story. Plus, it’s probably cheaper than a guitar with mother-of-pearl inlay.

Evan: Pa would’ve gone to check out this show.

Click here to oil a snake on the ToughPigs forum!

by Evan G., Joe Hennes, Shane Keating, Louie Pearlman, and Matthew Soberman

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