Bookwriter Timothy A. McDonald's heartwarming story, composer-lyricist Paul William's catchy tunes and puppet magic from none other than the Jim Henson Company combine to strike a pleasant chord in Emmet Otter’s Jug-Band Christmas, which is premiering at Goodspeed Musicals in East Haddam CT, a nearly pitch-perfect collaboration between the theater and the Henson company.
The show is based on Russell and Lillian Hoban’s book and centers on Russ (Alan Campbell) and his daughter Jane (Kate Wetherhead) as they re-read "Emmet," one of Jane’s favorite childhood stories. They do this as they sadly anticipate spending their first Christmas without Kate’s mom, who has passed away. Suddenly as she and her father spend this time together, Jane finds herself transported to Frogtown Hollow [where "Emmett" takes place] and in the midst of animal characters, portrayed in director-choreographer Christopher Gattelli's production by actors and puppets, the latter masterfully handled by puppeteers Tyler Bunch, Anney McKilligan, James Silson and David Stephens.
Jane soon discovers that times are tough this Christmas in Frogtown Hollow (and the ironic references to the poor economy are not lost on the audience), so when Doc Bullfrog offers a $50 prize to the winner of a talent contest, everyone tries out. Emmet (Daniel Reichard) wants the prize money to buy a piano for his mother (Cass Morgan), who ekes out their living by taking in wash to launder in her tub. Mrs. Otter wants the prize money to purchase a guitar for hardworking Emmet, who uses his late father’s tool box, the only possession they haven’t sold, to do odd jobs. In an O-Henry-like turn, Ma hocks the toolbox to purchase fabric to make a costume so she can sing in the contest and Emmet puts a hole in the washtub to make a bass to compete with his jug-band.
The talent show is a hoot as the townsfolk perform, followed by groan-inducing, pun-filled commentary by Mayor Fox (perfect straight man Kevin Covert). Music store owner Mrs. Mink (Madeline Doherty) vamps, John Deer freezes in the spotlight, Old Lady Possum gets revenge on some dancing rabbits who ate the carrots in her garden and a nightmare rock band with a water-squirting catfish and a guitar-playing snake entertain.
“The Opera House has a no-refund policy,” the Mayor quips.
Bringing down the house are four puppet squirrels who have their own storyline as they chatter to each other and plant and care for a growing Christmas tree in a pot. Their acrobatic display with Madame Squirrel (Sheri Sanders) during the talent show is worth the price of a ticket all by itself, although some sightline problems with the puppets – and the squirrels' final moments in particular – might prove disappointing for some theatergoers.
Anna Louizos’ fabulous sets take us from Jane’s bedroom to Frogtown Hollow, a combination of larger-than-life woods complete with chirping birds and its downtown, where in a clever device, part of the backdrop reveals the Opera House on Main Street. Sound designer Jay Hilton seamlessly blends the puppet and actor voices and Gregg Barnes costumes are colorful and fanciful.
Amid the joyousness of "Emmett," everyone learns a lesson about giving and what matters most, and honestly, it’s hard not to like a wholesome kid’s show with lines like, “Gosh, Jane, that sounds fine!” The kids enjoy it, but so do the adults, who squeal with delight every time a puppet makes an entrance.
---- Lauren Yarger
Jim Henson’s Emmet Otter’s Jug-Band Christmas plays at The Goodspeed Opera House (6 Main Street, East Haddam, CT) through Jan. 4. Performance times are Wednesdays at 2pm and 7 pm; Thursdays at 7 pm; Fridays at 7 pm, with matinees at 2 pm on Dec. 26 and Jan. 2; Saturdays at 2 pm and 7 pm; and Sundays at 2 pm and 6:30 pm; with special performances on Christmas Eve at 2 pm, New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Day at 2 pm and added performances Sunday, Dec. 28 and Sunday, Jan. 4 at 6:30 pm Tickets start at $39 for children under 12 and $49 for adults and can be purchased by calling 860-873-8668 or by visiting www.goodspeed.org.