Photo: Jim Henson’s Emmet Otter’s Jug-Band Christmas continues through Jan. 2 at the New Victory Theater. Photo courtesy of Richard Termine / Provided by Rubenstein with permission.
NEW YORK — There are many holiday TV favorites this time of year. Some people line up behind the Griswold family and their Christmas antics, while others follow Ralphie on his quest to secure a Red Ryder BB gun. There are those who are even more nostalgic, taking in viewings of It’s a Wonderful Life or Miracle on 34th Street. No matter one’s choice, Christmas trees are lit, music is in the air, and the smell of hot cocoa is a welcome fragrance throughout the home.
One holiday staple that has built a cult following over the years is Jim Henson’s Emmet Otter’s Jug-Band Christmas, a most wholesome and heartwarming showcase of exquisite puppetry and accessible storytelling from the 1970s. This Christmas tale of yesteryear has made its way to the stage, thanks to legendary songwriter Paul Williams and director/choreographer Christopher Gattelli, who also wrote the book with Timothy A. McDonald.
Emmet and the other inhabitants of Frogtown Hollow have rowed themselves into the New Victory Theater on 42nd Street, the preeminent institution in New York City for family-friendly entertainment. Performances continue through Jan. 2, and audience members are seated in spaced-out pods, which might set theatergoers’ minds at ease. The Omicron variant is causing a slight panic in the Big Apple’s theatrical community, but safety protocols and requirements are in place.
The musical follows Emmet (Colin Trudell) and his mother, lovingly referred to as Ma (Cass Morgan), as they eek out a living on the river, worrying from paycheck to paycheck, but never letting their tough reality get the best of them. Emmet’s deceased father used to sell snake oil to the local residents on the river, but now Emmet does a few odds and ends for some measly pennies. His mother launders clothes for the more upscale families, including Mayor Fox (Kevin Covert) and Mrs. Fox (Laura Woyasz, understudying at a recent performance). Their only hope of breaking the hardship is to enter a local talent competition. Emmet plays the washtub bass for a jug band, and they hope to win the prize money, which would allow Emmet to buy Ma a piano for her own musical talents. Ma, on the other hand, decides to enter the contest, hoping to win the money and purchase Emmet a new guitar. Much like O. Henry’s The Gift of the Magi, the two loved ones keep their ambitions secret from each other and hope that at the end of their journey they are able to win against the Riverbottom Nightmare Band.
The 75-minute story is brought to wondrous life thanks to skilled puppetry of many different varieties. In the foreground of the stage there is a slight lip of leaves and snow, allowing a team of puppeteers to enliven the surroundings with scurrying critters on the forest floor. On either side of the stage are large trees, again allowing puppeteers to hide themselves and affording their characters the chance to sit on a limb (owl), knock against the bark (woodpecker) or welcome the audience to the show (Doc Bullfrog, played by Jordan Brownlee).
Emmet and Ma, much like the rest of the cast, are played by actual performers, of the human kind, decked out in Gregg Barnes’ intricate costumes, with tails wagging and big, burly coats to stave off the cold. Emmet and Ma are also presented in puppet form, which will bring a momentary tear to the eye for those nostalgic about the original TV special. Trudell and Morgan are spot-on as the protagonists, and other standouts include Covert as the mayor and LaVon Fisher-Wilson, pulling double duty as Mrs. Mink and Hetty Muskrat.
The performers are uniformly excellent, striking the balance between big gestures for the youngsters in the crowd and heartfelt storytelling for everyone to enjoy. They don’t play to the audience (well, maybe Mayor Fox, who is the emcee for the talent show). Instead, they take this tale of poverty, second chances and hopeful ambitions seriously, offering a Christmas tale that feels like a Frank Capra film. If it weren’t for the talking otters and foxes, this could be an Oscar-winning movie starring Jimmy Stewart.
Williams, songwriter extraordinaire, has crafted a number of touching songs, some of them humorous and others more somber, many of them from the original TV special. Again, he takes the story seriously and provides an important message while also having fun with the animal characters.
Much kudos to Gattelli for his fun, high-energy, heartfelt treatment of Henson’s original property. Ditto for John Tartaglia, who supervises the puppets, truly a highlight for the musical. There are so many moving parts and different characters, yet the puppeteers, each of them tucked away in the darkness, bring to life this colorful world of song and good cheer.
Jim Henson’s Emmet Otter’s Jug-Band Christmas is an important staple any holiday season, but there is particular poignancy that can be found in this heartwarming story during the height of a raging pandemic. New York City needs Emmet Otter, now more than ever.
By John Soltes / Publisher / John@HollywoodSoapbox.com
Jim Henson’s Emmet Otter’s Jug-Band Christmas continues through Jan. 2 at the New Victory Theater on 42nd Street in Manhattan. Starring Colin Trudell, Cass Morgan, Kevin Covert, Maggie Lakis, LaVon Fisher-Wilson and Jordan Brownlee. Click here for more information and tickets.