Review: Elmo, Cookie Monster, Grover, and More Star in Sweet, Shabby Sesame Street Musical
Can you tell me how to get, how to get to Theatre Row?
In what is probably a first, Sesame Workshop (the parent company of the non-Disney-owned Muppets) has allowed for a theatrical production featuring the TV denizens from every child's favorite street. I know what you're saying: at some point, you've probably taken your kids to see Sesame Street Live at an enormous concert venue, and Elmo, Cookie Monster, and Grover were all there. But Sesame Street the Musical, which has taken up intimate residence Theatre Row, has one thing that the long-touring show doesn't. Instead of mascot-style costumes, this off-Broadway production utilizes the puppets that have been seen on public television for decades.
Sesame Street: The Musical is written and directed by Jonathan Rockefeller, the Australian puppetry impresario behind last season's Disney-based Winnie the Pooh stage show, and popular productions like That Golden Girls Show! A Puppet Parody and The Very Hungry Caterpillar Show. This one is somewhat of a departure for Rockefeller. In the past, he's built his own larger-than-life creations and deconstructed the magic of theatrical puppetry by allowing us to see the humans behind the movement. Here, Rockefeller is bound by the notoriously specific laws of the famed Muppetry franchise. You're getting the authentic creations of Jim Henson's Creature Shop, lip-syncing to pre-recorded dialogue by the voice actors from the TV show, with a stage specially constructed to hide as many of the wires and humans as possible.
The loose conceit of the 75-minute show is that the Sesame Street gang is performing a musical, but they've forgotten to book a special guest star. When a shy, human "audience member" named Stephen (Stephen Fala) walks in late, they rope him into being in the show, but the characters first must teach him how to sing, dance, and have confidence.
What transpires is a variety showcase for some of Sesame Street's greatest hits: Cookie Monster singing "C Is for Cookie," Ernie in the bathtub performing "Rubber Duckie," Rosita doing "Sing After Me," Oscar the Grouch, now a hard-to-please theater critic, on "I Love Trash," and the irresistible "Elmo's Got the Moves." There are Honkers, Yip Yip aliens, anthropomorphic numbers, and a shrine to Elmo's arch-nemesis, Rocco. In addition to the classics, there are also a handful of mostly unmemorable new songs written by Nate Edmundson, Helen Park, and Tom Kitt.
I, of course, couldn't help but sing along to the music of my childhood, and I desperately wished that it was me up there in Stephen's place, and not only because his performance was awkward and uncomfortable. This is a show that, in some ways, the adult audiences who grew up on Sesame Street will appreciate as much as the newly Elmo-obsessed. The glee with which we all applauded when Bert and Ernie argued, and Count von Count counted, was palpable. If you've only ever been in the presence of the Times Square Elmos, Sesame Street: The Musical is an experience like no other.
But it is a kid's show, and in that regard, you can pinpoint the exact moments when Sesame Street: The Musical loses its target audience. In short, it's whenever they stop singing. The "talking" seemed to go on forever, lacking the sly humor and inventiveness of the actual Sesame Street. Rockefeller's direction is lackadaisical, but there's only so much you can do when your script is mostly prerecorded. Tyler Schank's deliberately constricting set also doesn't help, especially when it comes to sightlines (avoid the front two rows at all cost). But the need to cover the puppeteers is unavoidable: they're not allowed to break the illusion, probably under the penalty of having the rights taken away.
Still, is a crowd of three-year-olds really going to care that the one human actor isn't very good, or that the backdrops look cheap? No. They can't even read this. Besides, there are bubbles falling from the ceiling, and Elmo is live and in person, and the gift shop has every kind of stuffed doll you can think of. Can you tell me how to get, how to get all the way to the bank?