The Muppets have succeeded where few pop cultural phenomena have, maintaining their relevance and celebrity status among both adults and kids from the moment they first landed on the scene in the late 1950s. In a world in which almost everything invented pre-iPhone has been eclipsed by something shinier and sleeker, the Muppets have never lost their unflappable charm and indefatigable ability to entrance audiences young and old.
While their voices have changed over the years (and the puppeteers inside them), and there have been crises of character along the way (Kevin Clash, the original voice of Elmo, was accused and later cleared of sexual abuse charges), Jim Henson’s zany gaggle of whimsical, hilarious, furry friends have remained iconic, inimitable and downright cool.
Which is why the Hollywood Bowl Friday night was filled to the hilt with moms and dads — some tipsy on chardonnay; others designated sober carpoolers — and children, in their t-shirts adorned with “LOL” and striped Adidas sneakers, hipster parents and baby boomer grandparents, all convening to watch Kermit and Company come alive on stage.
I took three third-grade girls to the “Muppets Take the Bowl” variety show spectacular, girls more interested in watching Youtube videos and making sparkle slime than singing along to “The Star Spangled Banner” led by Sam the Eagle and Scooter. And it speaks to the undying genius of Henson that these tweens were just as taken by the theatrical antics and subversive comic stylings of Kermit (played by Matt Vogel) and Miss Piggy (Eric Jacobson) — are they not one of the most compelling romantic couplings in the history of Hollywood? — as was I, their grown adult counterpart, raised on “The Muppet Show” and “Sesame Street” and unable to watch anything Muppet-related without suffering wistful pangs of nostalgia for the simpler days of the 1970s.
Hosted by “SNL” alum Bobby Moynihan, the spirited two-hour show hit all the high notes in the Muppets’ extensive catalogue of zippy anthems and classic sketches. The Hollywood Bowl Orchestra, led by conductor Thomas Wilkins, regaled the crowd with rousing, uplifting renditions of tunes ranging from the “Muppet Show Theme Song” to Stephen Sondheim’s melancholic “Send in the Clowns,” a number that drew laughs for its inclusion of creepy-silly circus performers.
Classic bits like “Pigs in Space,” featuring Dr. Julius Strangepork, and “Hair,” with singing wigs flopping around onstage, were peppy favorites, but, really, everything about the Muppets at the Bowl worked. Miss Piggy, per usual, was gloriously vain and hungry for attention, vamping for the camera in a wide-screen close-up, while Kermit merrily tap-danced his way through “Happy Feet” and Robin, his amphibian nephew, performed with a quartet of fellow frogs in a skit called “Croakapella.”
“You’re obviously a forgiving audience…and, thanks to stack parking, you’re also a captive one,” joked the ever self-effacing Kermit at one point.
A selection of “Muppfronts” parodies — a nod to TV pilot season — earned some of the heartiest laughs of the night, with such biting titles as “Keeping up with the Crustaceans,” featuring a clam with a Kardashian-esque vocal fry, and “The Walking Bread,” a bit in which the Swedish chef turns a bunch of zombie loafs into toast.
“It’s not easy being greenlit in this town,” quipped Kermit.
Later on, Sgt. Floyd Pepper and Janice, with her signature golden whiplash locks, proved they’re as groovy and swinging as ever, headlining Dr. Teeth and the Electric Mayhem in an impassioned ode to David Bowie’s “Suffragette City.” And Miss Piggy performing an Adele medley — “Hello” included — was pure comic gold.
But it was perennial tearjerker “The Rainbow Connection,” penned by Kenneth Ascher and Paul Williams, that stole the show. Williams, a surprise guest, joined Kermit and the Muppet crew on stage, and it was the perfect antidote to all the disharmony and tumult in today’s world, performed against an inky blue sky speckled with stars, sleep kids swaying, audience members waving their cellphone lights in the air.
The night ended with an explosion of rainbow-colored fireworks overhead and a spiritually redolent, gospel-infused ensemble finale of the Beatles’ seminal feel-good anthem, “With a Little Help from my Friends,” a number that left Muppet fans young and old marveling at the perpetual wonder of one of the most “sensational, inspirational, celebrational, Muppetational” showbiz acts of all time.