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What a pleasure and a privilege to have Jim Henson’s puppets in downtown Chicago for the holiday season!
The felt and furry critters in “Emmet Otter’s Jug-Band Christmas,” the lovely new family show at the historic and newly renovated Studebaker Theater, do not have the fame of Kermit the Frog and Miss Piggy (although there is an amphibian, Doc Bullfrog, narrating the tale of this family of otters). But they’re able nonetheless to tap into the very same reservoir of intergenerational affection we all feel for Henson’s seemingly sentient and endlessly interactive creations.
The Henson crew, and thus the producers of this show, can’t call them Muppets, because that name was sold to Disney, but names don’t matter when you have this level of puppeteer craft and, of course, the fruits of the late Henson’s imagination, being as this show is a live version of one of the great man’s most beloved creations, a 1977 TV special about a family of Frogtown Hollow otters that many families re-watch every holiday season.
There was enough evidence on view at Monday’s opening night that such families, and a few more besides, will be delighted to see all of this come alive before them on the stage within a beautiful picture-book setting from scenic designer Anna Louizos. Present in the house was the famed songwriter and performer Paul Williams, a justly beloved man who wrote the songs for both the TV special and this show, and whose aura was generating all kinds of excitement among those who knew he also wrote so many of the songs of their youths.
As fans of “The Muppet Show” are aware, Henson often structured his work like a kind of puppet vaudeville with separate acts ending with a gag or a song or a clash of symbols. You don’t see the puppeteers in classic Henson fare and this episodic structure allowed him to reset his elaborate system of curtains and platforms. That’s one thing on TV, where there’s time for set-ups, and entirely another thing live. Yet the show, artfully and unpretentiously directed and choreography by Christopher Gattelli, pulls off this feat in truly remarkable fashion.
The story is, of course, structured around a talent show wherein the titular young mustelid, Emmet (Andy Mientus), tries to win in order to buy a Christmas gift for his impecunious and widowed Ma (Kathleen Elizabeth Monteleone), who has entered the same multispecies contest in order to buy her kid the guitar he craves. In the end, two mutual acts of selflessness meld together for the good of everyone.
The 80-minute show, performed to a musical track but still much bigger than most people will expect, combines live actors and puppets in classic Henson fashion. Watching the likes of Sawyer Smith and Emily Rohm converse with puppet squirrels and squirrelly snakes and stoats is bucket loads of fun. I wish the top-heavy sound had been clearer and I’m not sure if this is a matter of a hard-surface venue that needs acoustic work, finding a better mix or the need for superior equipment. Perhaps all three. Whatever the cause, the reality is that audiences have sophisticated sound bars in their basements now and are just not used to straining to make out lyrics; the producers would be well advised to work on this in coming days, given the fine quality of the rest of their work here.
“Emmet Otter,” which has a lively book written (after the original Russell and Lillian Hoban story) by Timothy Allen McDonald (also the lead producer) and Gattelli, is aiming for Broadway next year. I’d suggest finding more moments for emotional engagement among the human characters and maybe adding a couple of well-placed songs outside the dominant Americana palette. Williams’ score is quite wonderful (especially “When the River Meets the Sea”) and very unified in its bluegrass ethos, but while they were ideal for TV, the numbers mostly are a bit too short for the top-drawer human leads to really connect in person. Williams surely could add a pop-country ditty or two in the style of “Trust That Branch”; almost all musicals benefit from lots of variety and this one would be no exception, especially if they are planning a live orchestra, as they surely should. I’d like to have heard one in Chicago.
Still, any fan of Henson, and that should be pretty much everyone, shouldn’t miss this truly splendid addition to the seasonal attractions on offer in Chicago’s Loop. It’s just an incredibly happy and comforting kind of experience, ideal for all ages. It’s a balm our city needs, for sure, but also very much at a level of theatrical quality that long has been this city’s cultural signature, drawing suburbanites and visitors downtown.
Welcome indeed to Michigan Avenue, Yancy Woodchuck, Doc Bullfrog, Wendell Porcupine, Stan Weasel and the rest of the crew, even Stinky Skunk. Peace and love to y’all.
Chris Jones is a Tribune critic.
Review: “Emmet Otter’s Jug-Band Christmas” (3.5 stars)
When: Through Dec. 31
Where: Studebaker Theater, 410 S. Michigan Ave.
Running time: 1 hour, 20 minutes
Tickets: $43-$127 (including fees) at 312-753-3210 and emmetotterlive.com. Note: $13 validated parking available for Grant Park South Garage.