Emmet Otter’s Jug-Band Christmas

The puppets steal the show in this swell world premiere musical adaptation, starring Daniel Reichard in the title role.

Cass Morgan, Daniel Reichard, and Tyler Bunch
in Emmet Otter's Jug-Band Christmas
(© Diane Sobolewski)
Cass Morgan, Daniel Reichard, and Tyler Bunch
in Emmet Otter’s Jug-Band Christmas
(© Diane Sobolewski)

W.C. Fields’ warning, “Never work with children or animals,” could as easily extend to puppets, especially those of the Jim Henson genus. In Emmet Otter’s Jug-Band Christmas, enjoying a swell world premiere at the Goodspeed Opera House, there’s no question that cunningly animated inanimate objects steal the show.

Adapted from the 1977 HBO special, which in turn drew its inspiration from Russell and Lillian Hoban’s 1971 book, this chamber musical represents a terrific addition to the holiday roster. And the Broadway-honed cast that director and choreographer Christopher Gattelli has assembled deserve kudos for so graciously sharing the spotlight. It’s their belief in the viability of the cuddly creatures that surround them, after all, that sustains our own.

Gattelli and co-author Timothy A. McDonald frame the story — about an impoverished washer-woman widow, Ma Otter (Cass Morgan), and her musically inclined son, Emmet (Daniel Reichard) — within a contemporary context. Jane (marvelous Kate Wetherhead), a media-saturated teen, sits on her bed, fielding calls on her pink cellphone and composing on her laptop a new “Xmas” song consisting largely of the lyrics “gimmegimmegimme.” (The score is by Paul Williams,) She balks at the prospect of sharing a dull Christmas Eve with her father (Alan Campbell) — their first since the death of her mother — but allows him to read her a few pages from a favorite childhood book found among their holiday mementos.

Presto; we segue into the first of a series of delightful felicities of scale. The bedroom wall becomes a scrim past which we spot a puppet Ma and Emmet rowing toward town. Then, as Jane’s bed is whisked away, the live duo glide on in a full-size boat, while further puppets — including a quartet of adorable “acrobatic” squirrels — pop up in the foreground. Such switchbacks — frame to picture, storybook to live action, plush to flesh and back — cleverly recur throughout the production. Although the script is not the pinnacle of sophistication (it lacks the adult subtext that enlivens Sesame Street and abounds in child-pleasing puns), the staging is sufficiently lively to capture and keep the attention of all ages.

This variation on “The Gift of the Magi” comes with a slight Ayn Rand twist. Both Emmet and his mom long to give the other a store-bought gift and, as their only means to that end, seize upon the prospect of winning the prize money offered by a talent contest. The catch is, in order to perform, they must first be prepared to sacrifice the other’s most treasured possession.

Morgan achieves several touching moments as Emmet’s mostly selfless mom, while managing to skirt the temptation to saccharinity. As Emmet, Reichard has seized on a nasal tone that’s not pleasant to listen to, and his over-intent, one-note acting style could use a softer touch. Jeff Miller, as one of Emmet’s bandmates, conveys a perfect comic admixture of aspirational animal intelligence.

As Mrs. Mink, proud owner of the town’s “music emporium,” Madeleine Doherty mostly channels Georgia Engel but delivers a breakout number when, during the contest, her character is overcome by the urge to burlesque.

Among the other contenders, the most memorable is one John Deere (a puppet head), who, caught in the spotlight, is too spooked to emit a single note.

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