Emmet Otter's Jug-Band Christmas

By Garrett Stack

You know you’re in for a treat when the first appearance of the main characters is revealed and the audience is instantly wooed and spontaneous sighs of delight punctuate the quiet scene. So where is this treat? It’s in Frogtown Hollow at The Goodspeed Opera House, the setting for Emmett Otter’s Jug Band Christmas.

Emmett Otter’s Jug Band Christmas is a brand new musical born at The Goodspeed this month. It’s based on the1971 book by Russell Hoban and the made-for-TV Jim Henson Muppet movie of the same name. Bringing an all puppet film to the stage with human and puppet characters is a premise that is fully realized and immediately carries one away on a fantasy into a world full of goodness and hope and possibility.

Jersey Boys’ Daniel Reichard is Emmett Otter. Mr. Reichard brings an adorable and vulnerable quality to the role with a sweet voice that the audience and a mother otter love. Cass Morgan, recently from Mary Poppins, plays Ma Otter who together with Reichard makes us suspend disbelief as the story unfolds. It seems that since Pa Otter died, Emmett and Ma Otter have very little money. With Christmas coming each wants to surprise the other with a special Christmas present. To get the money they both secretly enter a talent contest hoping to win the $50 prize. Along the way relationships with the other citizens of Frogtown Hollow are built and nurtured.

The Jim Henson Company, creator of the Muppets and Sesame Street puppets, puts forth amazing animal characters animated by talented puppeteers. The puppets interact seamlessly with the human characters, all of whom are costumed in brilliant animal attire by the Tony-winning designer, Gregg Barnes.

If you’ve seen the movie or read the Emmett Otter’s Jug Band Christmas book, there are a couple of twists that stage book writer Timothy McDonald and Director Christopher Gattelli have added. That is, the show starts with a teenage girl on Christmas Eve whose father wants to read his daughter the Emmett Otter book like he did when she was a little girl. The daughter, spoiled by the excesses of the 21st Century, reluctantly agrees and unexpectedly learns the real lessons of Christmas as she finds herself in the midst of Frogtown Hollow interacting with the animal inhabitants.

Oscar, Grammy, Golden Globe and Hall of Fame songwriter Paul Williams, who you may remember penned major hits for The Carpenters, Helen Reddy, Three Dog Night, Barbra Streisand and Kermit the Frog, composed the music and lyrics. For Emmett Otter’s Jug Band Christmas Williams wrote the original score for the film and has added new songs for this stage production. Touching melodies and lyrics can be found in When The River Meets the Sea, Alice Keep Dreaming and Brothers In Our World. Barbeque, Ain’t No Hole in the Washtub and The One Bathing Suit simply make your toes tap and put a smile on your face.

The one minor criticism I have about the production is that the puppets’ dialogue and lyrics were at times hard to understand. Many a good line was lost due to poor miking or enunciation on the part of the puppeteers.

Still, you’ve got Jim Henson puppets, humans playing animals, accessible down-home music, and fanciful sets by Avenue Q designer Anna Louizos with an ensemble that endears. This crowd pleasing tale of love, friendship and caring taps into the child spirit that burns in all of us.

Joyous, warm, fuzzy and timeless, Emmett Otter’s Jug Band Christmas, at the Goodspeed Opera House in East Haddam, Connecticut through January 4, is certain to be a perennial favorite for decades to come.

On the Theatre Circuit for WMNR, I’m Garrett Stack. (Saw 12/17/08 performance)

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