Sometimes you just need a hug, which makes the timing right for “Emmet Otter’s Jug-Band Christmas,” a new feel-better tuner that serves as theatrical comfort food for our increasingly desperate times. A cozy collaboration between Goodspeed Musicals and the Jim Henson Co., the high-profile, high-priced human/puppet entertainment preems this month in East Haddam, Conn., with ambitions of creating a holiday franchise. With further finessing to add more pizzazz, sass and songs, the family-friendly B.O. bounty-maker could indeed gain seasonal status of its own.
Blending the small graces of Russell and Lillian Hoban’s illustrated book, Henson’s sweet-yet-puckish sensibility from the 1977 HBO adaptation and the more dynamic needs of the live stage, the production is sometimes a bit of a mishmash of tastes ranging from the saccharine to the tart to the fizzy. But helmer and co-scripter Christopher Gattelli keeps the heartfelt (not to mention felt-felt) production on track. It should be an appealing alternative attraction for young kids and older parents, but more snap is needed to get those in between.
The emotional payoff — as well as homage to the original story, TV show and creators — may mean more to cult followers of the Muppet musical version on which the show is based. But newbie Otter-crats will also find many pleasures in the simple story of family sacrifice during the holidays and the discovery of what really matters when you’re broke.
There’s nothing simple in the production, which transforms Goodspeed’s minuscule stage into a vast woodland world inhabited by 15 actors, four puppeteers (manipulating countless creatures) and five musicians. Much of the theatrical joy comes in the sheer wonder of it all, seeing how actors morph into anthropomorphic characters, ably aided by Anna Louizos’ sets, Brian MacDevitt’s lights and especially Gregg Barnes’ costumes.
Script by Timothy A. McDonald and Gattelli restructures the story with a contempo twist, maintaining much of the original’s dialogue and gentle humor while adding a few irreverent-though-irrelevant touches. (A great deer-in-headlights gag gets the biggest laugh of the show, but many puns fall flat.)
Play begins with a father (Alan Campbell) imploring his cynical teen daughter Jane (Kate Wetherhead) to stay home and get in the holiday spirit with him, coaxing her with a box of holiday memories, including the “Emmet Otter” book her mother inscribed to her before she died. Jane reluctantly relents, and as Dad starts to read the story, Jane gets swept up into the narrative in more ways than one.
It’s a workable device that nicely echoes the single-parent theme of the Hobson story that follows Otter Emmet (former “Jersey Boy” Daniel Reichard) and his poor, widowed mother Alice (Cass Morgan), barely making ends meet when each secretly enters a talent contest to earn prize money to buy Christmas gifts for the other.
But Jane’s intrusion into the story has its costs, changing focus of the narrative whenever she enters and having the actors react to this strange interloper in ways that jar with the story. It does result in an infectious new song, “Trust,” which Jane sings with a bunch of manic, scene-stealing squirrels. But when Jane becomes too much involved in the action at show’s climax, high concept trumps simple charm for a net loss.
Paul Williams’ songs fit the requirements of the show’s easy-going mood. But the syrupy title character of Emmet could have benefited from a solo song that gave him less sugar and more of an inner life. After all, Mrs. Mink (Madeleine Doherty) gets her own throw-away ditty just because she owns a music store.
Indeed, most of the five song additions are scene-setters that simply settle, failing the show’s own dictate that a song needs another element to make it special. The ballad “Alice Keep Dreaming,” however, nicely marks an emotional moment, and “Trust” evokes Muppet madness at its best. The TV show’s original tunes, also by Williams, come across best in its countrified musical palette, especially “When the River Meets the Sea,” “Ain’t No Hole in the Washtub,” “Our World,” “Barbeque” and “The One Bathing Suit.”
Thesps do well under the costume poundage, half-masks and makeup as they try to squeeze character out of whole cloth and with cartoon voices. Vocals are sterling, especially Reichard, Campbell, Wetherhead and Morgan. A delightful Robb Sapp makes Wendell Porcupine the opposite of prickly; Kevin Covert as Mayor Fox finds little comic gems during his emcee duties at the talent contest; and watching the puppeteers do their artistry is a show unto itself.
Show should benefit in transfer to larger stages to give some special effects (such as the ice slide) more elbow room. But the downside is that elements of the small tale and little puppets could be lost without that Goodspeed intimacy. These and other questions are sure to be worked out as the production attempts to get out of the woods and connect with wider auds.