Emmet Otter’s Jug-Band Christmas

New Victory Theater, NY, NY

review by Steve Abrams

The show runs about 20 minutes longer than the television version. The additional time was well used,

Originally published in The Puppetry Journal (Fall 2021 Vol. 72 No. 4)

The puppets in Emmet Otter’s Jug-Band Christmas are gorgeous. Each one is exquisitely designed and crafted. They live and breathe on the stage of the New Victory Theater thanks to the superb skills of the puppeteers. I confess that my attention perked up during the many puppetry moments, but my focus was not entirely fair to the heart-warming performances of the human actors on stage, Colin Trudell as Emmet Otter and Cass Morgan as Ma Otter.

Early in the show, four enthusiastic, scene-stealing red squirrels (smallish puppets) pop up at the very front of the stage. They huddle together and make plans, speaking a sort of understandable gibberish. And just a bit later, the actor playing Emmet comes right to the front of the stage and sits down with the squirrels, a lovely moment of human interaction with puppets.

Four squirrels and Colin Trudell as Emmet. Photo by Richard Termine

Each ingredient—the music, the puppets, the writing—contributes to this holiday treat. The songs by Paul Williams (who wrote “The Rainbow Connection”) have touches of folk music, bluegrass, and rock. “When the River Meets the Sea” is a sweet, memorable gospel-inspired tune. “Our World” and “Brothers” are excellent stand-alone songs, but are brilliantly crafted to be blended at the finale of the show.

The staff of Jim Henson Creature Shop knows exactly what to do. Master puppet designer and builder Rollie Krewson met each challenge, finding just the right kind of fur, building a new Ma Otter and building Pa Otter (actually his ghost), who did not appear in 1977.

On stage, the show runs about 20 minutes longer than the television version. The additional time was well used, allowing for a larger canvas with more time to develop the characters and story. Mayor Fox as M.C. of the talent contest is particularly enjoyable as he struggles, almost successfully, to remain diplomatic. There are funny throwaway lines and a few sly contemporary references. Balancing plot, character, sentiment, and humor was the special skill of Jerry Juhl, who created the original adaptation.

Like the Cratchit family, Emmet and his mother have a sweet nobility and resilience. There is high drama as Emmet struggles to make the choice to put a hole in his mother’s washtub, so it can become a washtub bass. When Emmet and three friends create the Frogtown Hollow Jubilee Jug Band, they first rehearse in a tree house at the back of the stage, and for that scene we see Emmet as a puppet.

The talent contest, with a $50 prize, is eagerly anticipated in the quiet country setting. The Riverbottom Nightmare Band comes to town and enters the contest. Presented as rude trouble-makers, they are playfully evil, with their loud, high-energy rock, in vivid contrast to the sweet sounds of the other contestants. Nevertheless, they win the contest. The leader of the band has some of the gruff, scary energy of Animal from a different puppet band. Charlie Beaver in the jug band says, “They seem nice.” Perhaps the Nightmare Band is an unsentimental acknowledgment of constantly changing styles of music.

Is Emmet Otter a classic in the making? Christmas is a time of year to share stories that have survived for many generations. A six-year-old who watched Emmet 44 years ago would now be age 50. I think, and wish, and hope, that a six-year-old seeing Emmet today on stage for the
very first time would be engaged and enchanted.

Emmet Otter’s Jug-Band Christmas credits:
Directed and choreographed by Christopher Gattelli; book by Timothy Allen McDonald and Christopher Gattelli; music by Paul Williams; based on the book by Russell and Lillian Hoban.

The cast: Colin Trudell as Emmet Otter, Cass Morgan as Ma Otter, Maggie Lakis as Mrs. Fox, and Kevin Covert as Mayor Fox, and puppeteers Jordan Brownlee as Doc Bullfrog, Matt Furtado as Yancy Woodchuck and Stan Weasel, Anney Ozar as Old Lady Possum, James Silson as Fred Lizard, and all the puppeteers doubling to play the squirrels. Onstage human actors include Jakeim Hart, Steven Huynh, J. Antonio Rodriguez, and LaVon Fisher-Wilson. Puppet direction was by John Tartaglia.

Produced by Timothy Allen McDonald, iTheatrics, Writers’
Cage, Cheryl Henson, and Heather Henson, with Alex Robertson as associate producer.

Co-creators Gattelli and McDonald did a stage adaptation for Goodspeed Musicals in 2008. Emmet Otter for television premiered, December 1977, with a U.S. premiere on HBO, December 17, 1978. It later aired on ABC and Nickelodeon in the 1990s. A “Collector’s Edition” DVD was released in 2005, and the 40″ anniversary DVD was released in 2017. The made-for-television Emmet Otter can be streamed on Amazon.

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