By Geary Danihy
There’s big doin’s in Frogtown Hollow this Christmas. For the first time there’s going to be a talent contest, and unbeknownst to each other, Alice Otter and her son, Emmet, both plan to enter and win the grand prize so they can buy a gift. Alice wants to get her son a guitar and Emmet wants to buy his mother a piano. There’s only one hitch. Dirt poor, they each have to risk what little they have to enter the contest, with no guarantee they’ll win.
Such is the premise – a reworking of O’Henry’s “The Gift of the Magi” – of Goodspeed Opera House’s holiday presentation, Emmet Otter’s Jug-Band Christmas, an adaptation of the television special originally produced by Jim Henson of Muppet fame. Produced in association with The Jim Henson Company with the assistance of Brian Henson, Jim Henson’s son, this delightful holiday offering features both live actors and a range of puppets in a foot-stomping frolic that is pleasing to both the eye and the ear.
The frame for the story consists of a father (Alan Campbell) attempting to get his cynical daughter, Jane, (Kate Wetherhead) into the proper Christmas spirit by reading to her from the Emmet Otter tale (written by Russell and Lillian Hoban). Jane condescendingly agrees, only to find herself literally drawn into the story.
Graced with a range of expressions that would make Carol Burnett proud, Wetherhead brings just the right mix of insouciance and archness to a role that requires her to, among other things, interact believably with four chattering flying squirrels in the musical number “Trust.” She’s such a pleasure to watch that it’s unfortunate she doesn’t appear in more of the numbers.
The main focus of the evening is on Mrs. Otter (Cass Morgan) and her son, Emmet (Daniel Reichard). as they figure out how to enter the talent contest and then prepare for their big moments on stage. Morgan and Reichard work well together, keeping the schmaltz-factor at an acceptable level, even though Reichard has a tendency to whine a bit too many of his lines. However, it’s the secondary characters that make the evening as enjoyable as it is.
Standouts here include Kevin Covert as Mayor Harrison Fox and Lisa Howard as his wife, Gretchen Fox. Covert is especially good in the talent show scenes that, as the mayor of Frog Hollow, he emcees. Encumbered by a padded fox costume, with his face almost entirely masked by “fox” make-up, Covert is still able, through gesture and timing, to deliver a highly humorous performance. This is equally true of Madeleine Doherty as Mrs. Mink, owner of the town’s music store, who in the talent show number “Born in a Trunk” does a crowd-pleasing striptease (all in good taste, of course).
As would be expected of a Henson production, the puppetry is outstanding, with the aforementioned flying squirrels being the standouts. However, with regard to the squirrels, much of the “action” occurs downstage on an apron erected where the musicians at Goodspeed usually sit (for this production they’re behind a scrim at the rear of the stage). This may make it difficult for some of the young folk to see what is going on, so it’s advised that parents take advantage of the child booster seats provided by the Opera House.
All in all, Emmet Otter’s Jug-Band Christmas, as directed and choreographed by Christopher Gattelli, with music by Paul Williams, colorful costumes by Gregg Barnes and a set by Anna Louizos complete with forest, river and, of course, Frog Hollow itself, is a whimsical holiday treat that will please all members of the family. The musical numbers, though less than memorable, are presented with a high degree of energy and the cast, as is true of all Goodspeed casts, gives its all. There’s also the added benefit that the opera house’s setting on the river along with the candle-lit Gelston House right next door and the nicely decorated La Vita Gustosa across the street, make for a lovely, picture-postcard holiday destination which, given the recent weather, must be enhanced by a covering of snow.
Emmet Otter’s Jug-Band Christmas runs through Sunday, Jan. 4. For tickets or more information call 860-873-8668 or go to www.goodspeed.org.