Regional Reviews: Connecticut & the Berkshires
Regional Reviews by Fred Sokol
Emmet Otter's Jug-Band Christmas
Goodspeed Musicals, book writers Timothy A. McDonald and Christopher Gattelli, musician/lyricist Paul Williams, and The Jim Henson Company all come together to forge this world premiere which is based upon the television special (developed by Jim Henson) that aired more than three decades ago. The original source is the illustrated book "Emmet Otter's Jug-Band Christmas," by Russell and Lillian Hoban.
The cast for the new musical includes top level Broadway performers such as Daniel Reichard, who was nominated for a Drama Desk Award for his appearance in >Jersey Boys, and who now plays Emmet Otter. Cass Morgan, who appeared on Broadway in Mary Poppins and Beauty and the Beast, among other shows, is Mrs. Alice Otter. Alan Campbell (Contact and Sunset Boulevard) appears as Russ and Pa Otter. Actress Kate Wetherhead (Legally Blonde and The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee) is Jane. Kevin Covert steals the spotlight each time he steps to center stage as Mayor Harrison Fox. Covert recently worked at the La Jolla Playhouse in Memphis, a show which aims for Broadway next year. The casting is impressive and accompanying performances are top caliber.
The production utilizes muppet/puppets as animals (squirrels, ducks, an owl ... someone with real expertise could better identify) interspersed with actors who play recognizable types (a father) and other performers who appear as, for example, wildly imaginative rib-tickling foxes (Covert and this fox's wife, played by Lisa Howard). Actress Madeline Doherty is Mrs. Mink. One of my favorites happens to be deep-voiced Doc Bullfrog (Tyler Bunch).
Paul Williams, who has written tunes like "We've Only Just Begun" and "Rainy Days and Mondays," provides the score and lyrics while the impressive Christopher Gattelli directs the entire smorgasbord production. Gregg Barnes' costumes, showcasing bold colors, are an inventive hoot. Anna Louizos' scenic design includes "vehicles" which somehow navigate quickly through streams, and the various sets include The Music Emporium and The Otter Cabin.
The performance begins as Jane and Russ begin to read a children's story. That ushers in the simple plot of the play: Emmet and his mother are not able to buy each other Christmas presents. They hear of a Talent Show coming up soon and each desperately hopes to winin order to get the cash which will enable one or the other to purchase gifts. Ma Otter has made money only by doing some laundry and Emmet hasn't had a steady source of income. Hence, Ma trades in Emmet's toolbox to get some fabric for her Talent Show dress and Emmet takes his mother's washtub and converts it into an instrument for the jug band. Both Ma and The Jug Band perform well at the talent show, but first prize money is awarded to River Bottom Nightmare Band. Use your imagination when you think of the name of that group and the kind of show we have. Never fear! The creators of Emmet Otter's Jug-Band Christmas surely configure a means so that the show concludes most amiably.
Children and older children (whatever your age may be) will be very much pleased to divert attention away from the woes of life-as-is through the magic of Henson Company puppets and Larry Pressgrove's musical direction, along with Williams' music and a group of actors who seem to be having quite a terrific time of it on the intimate Goodspeed stage. The songs are sweet, especially "When the River Meets the Sea," at the conclusion of the first act, and exquisitely harmonic "Brothers in Our World," featuring Jane, Ma, Emmet, and The Jug Band near the end of the play. That number leads into a reprise of "When the River Meets the Sea" performed by the company.
Emmet Otter's Jug-Band Christmas will be performed at the Goodspeed Opera House in East Haddam, Connecticut through January 4th. For ticket information, call the box office at (860) 873-8668 or visit www.goodspeed.org.
- Fred Sokol