Emmet Otter’s Jug-Band Christmas — A Treat from Goodspeed

By Karen Isaacs with Jessie Kilburn

All the way home in the car, it was “I liked this….,” I liked the part where …..”, “The squirrels were really neat….” That is bound to be your reaction to Goodspeed’s first Holiday presentation, Emmet Otter’s Jug-Band Christmas whether you are six or decades older.

This world premier is a creative delight. It started as a book but was transformed by Jim Henson into a classic all-puppet HBO special. Now authors Timothy A. McDonald and Christopher Gattelli, composer Paul Williams, Goodspeed and the Jim Henson Company have transformed it into an enchanting holiday treat.

The story is a twist on the famous O. Henry short story, “The Gift of the Magi.” In this case Emmet Otter and his mother have little money, so when a talent show is announced for Christmas Eve offering a $50 prize, each secretly plans to enter. Emmet joins with three other forest pals to form a jug band hoping to win a down payment on a piano for Ma. But he has to ruin the wash bucket that Ma uses to earn money, to do so. Ma hocks Emmet’s tool chest – another source of income – to buy fabric for a costume so she can sing in the talent show. She hopes to get Emmett the beautiful guitar in Mrs. Mink’s Music Shop window.

While the story may sound trite and overly sweet, it is what the collaborators have done with it that makes it so special.

First, there are both puppet characters and performers in this show. Gregg Barnes has created wonderfully inventive costumes – you can easily identify the animals but each has a personality of his or her own. Mayor Fox and his wife are resplendent. The costume for Wendell the porcupine is terrific.

The performers manage to create characters you care about. Cass Morgan as Ma Otter conveys a sweet, caring and charming woman while Daniel Reichard as Emmet is charmingly simple without being overly cute. Neither are cloying which can be a problem in this type of show. The four members of the jug band: Emmet, Wendell (Robb Sapp), Harvey Beaver (Daniel Torres), and Charlie Muskrat (Jeff Hiller) are individual characters.

Kate Wetherhead does an excellent job as Jane, the teenager who loses her cynicism about our overly materialistic Christmas while participating in the story.

But, what makes Emmet Otter’s Jug-Band Christmas so special is the talents of the Jim Henson Company and the puppeteers who manipulate the many other characters in the show – from the squirrels who run along the front of the stage, to Yancy Woodchuck, Howard Snake, Doc Bullfrog and more. Only occasionally do you catch even the smallest glimpse of the people behind these characters. So cheers to the puppeteers: Tyler Bunch, Anney McKilligan, James Silson and David Stephens.

Last but certainly not least are the music and lyrics by Paul Williams. While his music for last spring’s Happy Days was so-so at best, he has created some wonderful tunes that you will want to hear again for Emmet Otter. From the opening number, “The One Bathing Suit,” to “When the River Meets the Sea,” to “Alice Keep Dreaming,” to “Brothers in Our World,” you will be enchanted.

Christopher Gattelli who directed and choreographed has done a terrific job letting the charm of this piece show through without letting it get overly saccharine.

Thank you Goodspeed and Michael Price, executive director of Goodspeed, for this very special Christmas present. May it become a Connecticut tradition.

Emmet Otter’s Jug-Band Christmas is at Goodspeed Opera House in East Haddam through Jan. 4. For tickets and information call 860-873-8668 on in-line at www.goodspeed.org.

This review appeared in Shore Publications.

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