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Emmet Otter musical debuts at Goodspeed Opera House

Humanized Creatures Meet Creaturized Humans

Courtesy of The Day
December 7, 2008

The whole notion of reimagining a show in a different genre has become a staple of show business, but rarely has it been done this way: A TV special taking to the stage - with the puppets from the original becoming real, live actors.

This is the merry morphing happening in “Emmet Otter's Jug-Band Christmas.” The original version, fondly remembered by kids who've seen it since its 1977 debut on HBO, was replete with Jim Henson Company playfulness and puppetry.

Emmet Otter's Jug-Band Christmas Musical
Emmet Otter cast members Daniel Reichard, Daniel Torres, Jeff Hiller and Robb Sapp rehearse a scene with Old Lady Possum.

Thirty-one years later, the Henson Company has joined with Goodspeed Musicals to reimagine the piece as a stage show. The TV special, directed and produced by Jim Henson, was purely puppets. This theater version casts people in the lead roles, amidst a world of supporting-cast puppets.

A quick plot-explanatory aside: The story serves as a downhome take-off on O. Henry's “Gift of the Magi.” Emmet Otter and his Ma are dirt poor, and so each secretly enters a Christmas Eve talent contest to try to win enough money to buy each other a gift.

In the new version, humans are tricked out in elaborate costumes and evocative makeup, transformed into whimsical animal characters - with equally whimsical, self-explanatory names, like Stan Weasel and Fred Lizard.

One of the big theatrical challenges is to make the humans and the peripheral-role puppets somehow work together to create a seamless universe onstage.
Emmet Otter's Jug-Band Christmas Musical
Doc Bullfrog, a puppet from the original production of Emmet Otter's Jug-Band Christmas is used as a model in the scaling of the newest version for a production at the Goodspeed.

Tyler Bunch, who serves as the puppet captain for the production, says, “We had a movement discussion, about how the critters walk when they're in puppet form or when they're in human form and trying to make all of them feel like they're in the same world. It's just feeling that the audience is with you on that journey into this world and that they all look like they belong there.”

Of course, doing puppetry in a theater, in front of a live audience, is a much different thing than doing it for a camera. For a TV show, a given scene can get another take if things go awry. In a theater, meanwhile, the show has to look convincing to a theater full of individuals who have different sightlines instead of just to a camera's single point of view.

At Goodspeed, a good many of the puppeteers will work from the orchestra pit, from behind bits of scenery, and even popping up through a trap door. (The members of the orchestra will be on a platform toward the back of the stage.)

Four experienced puppeteers are part of the program, but the logistics'll get particularly tricky since they are each playing multiple characters.

Bunch says, “There are actually times when the characters I voice will be manipulated by another puppeteer because I had

to be on the other side of the stage to do something else. So a puppeteer will pick up my character and lipsync to my voice offstage.”

Sometimes, things get even more complicated. For a scene in which puppet Yancey Woodchuck plays the banjo, two puppeteers have to get in the act. Puppeteer David Stephens - who is an excellent banjo player in real life - uses his two hands to play the instrument, and he sings as the character. Bunch, meanwhile, moves the puppet's mouth.

”Puppeteers approach a role in the same way an actor would,” Bunch says. “One of the things I said to these guys when we first started was that a really good puppeteer is automatically a really good actor. They already have the heart and soul of an actor. The puppet is just the tool they use to express in the same way this gentleman (he gestures to lead actor Daniel Reichard) has worked so hard at his performing physique and his performing voice, we do the same but with a specific part of our body.

”So we're aiming toward the same goal, the realism of the humanized creatures. We're anthropomorphizing these lovely little fuzzy things.”

Emmet Otter's Jug-Band Christmas Musical
Puppet builder Matt Brooks holds one of the Catfish, part of a small school of fish he is making for Emmet Otter's Jug-Band Christmas, a Goodspeed Opera House production.

Bunch knows whereof he speaks. He has been a puppeteer on the likes of “Sesame Street” and “Bear in the Big Blue House,” but he's also acted in productions with the New York Gilbert & Sullivan Players and TV's “Law & Order.”

During a recent rehearsal, people and puppeteers worked together to create a cohesive theater world. Actors sang in a faux rowboat that they propelled across the floor with their feet. In front of and behind them, puppeteers populated the landscape with a few puppets - although, since this was very early in the rehearsal process, some used just their bare hands because the puppets were still being built, tweaked and perfected.

Singing the jaunty “There Ain't No Hole in the Washtub” with Ma (played by Cass Morgan) was Reichard as the titular Emmet. Reichard has gone from playing one of the Four Seasons in Broadway's “Jersey Boys” to portraying, well, an otter. Acting in a Muppet-rich environment doesn't feel totally alien to him.

Emmet and Alice Otter”I, like millions of other people, have Muppets in my blood. I am part Muppet,” he says during a break in rehearsal. “I was obsessed with Ernie and Bert. 'Sesame Street' and 'The Muppet Movie' and this Muppet Christmas album - they all just bring back such peaceful and fond memories of my childhood.”

Reichard had never seen the TV version of “Emmet Otter” as a child but had listened to the John Denver and the Muppets album, which featured puppet artist Jerry Nelson, who was the voice of Emmet. They dueted on “When the River Meets the Sea” from “Emmet Otter.”

He is basing the character's voice on Nelson's, he says, “because that's the quintessential Muppet voice. A lot of it is inspired by him and also the childlike innocence and lack of pretension of all of the Muppet characters.”

Reichard has a theory, too, about why shows like “Emmet Otter” have maintained their popularity with the public.

He says, “The reverence and the joy that you experience when watching (Henson productions) endures because there is that amazing line that he and his company walked, between adult sensibilities and philosophies, and a childlike humor and playfulness and silliness.”

Cast
Daniel Reichard as Emmet Otter
Cass Morgan as Ma Otter
Alan Campbell as Pa Otter
Kate Wetherhead as Jane
Stephen Beinskie as Stan Weasel
Justin Bohon as Harvey
Kevin Covert as Mayor Fox
Leo Daignault as Chuck
Madeline Doherty as Mrs. Mink
Colin Hanlon as Fred Lizard
Jeff Hiller as Charlie
Lisa Howard as Mrs. Fox
Sheri Sander as Heddy
Robb Sapp as Wendell

Puppeteers
Tyler Bunch
Anney McKilligan
James Silson
David Stephens

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   MORE HENSON NEWS

Jerry Nelson tribute at The Moving Image Museum October 27
Jim Henson's Pajanimals debuts on NBC Kids Saturday July 7
The New York Pops play The Muppets at Carnegie Hall April 14
Henson announces "Sid the Science Kid: The Movie" in 3-D
The Jim Henson Company Puppets to perform at the 2011 Grammys
"Pioneers of Television" special to honor Jim Henson
Classic "Henson's Place" special arrives on DVD August 3
Frank Oz unveils tribute to the "Henson Pipes" at NBC Studios

 
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