Friday, December 19, 2008

Review of "Emmet Otter’s Jug-Band Christmas"

It’s the holiday season. You want to do something special with the family, but you’ve seen The Nutcracker and A Christmas Carol umpteen times. What to do? Fortunately, there is a new seasonal alternative, now playing at the Goodspeed Opera House in East Haddam, CT. Titled Emmet Otter’s Jug-Band Christmas, the production is a joint effort between Goodspeed and The Jim Henson Company, home of The Muppets and other assorted enchanting creations. Based on the children’s book of the same name and, more notably, the 1977 television special directed by Henson, with a score by Paul Williams, Emmet Otter is, according to the program notes, “where love and family and the hope of the holiday period take the chill off a frozen river, where the sounds of the season bring an infectious boost to the spirit, and where Emmet Otter and his friends make a little bit of magic right before your eyes.”

The Goodspeed production brings the characters of Frogtown Hollow alive, mixing actors portraying the creatures along the river with specially designed puppets by The Henson Company. Henson’s handiwork adds a touch of warmth as well as zaniness to the musical. Think of the old Muppet Show with their madcap skits and humor. Director and choreographer Christopher Gattelli, who also helped out with the book, wonderfully weaves the live action and the assorted animal puppets into a heartwarming and touching Christmas story.

Loosely based on the O. Henry short story, "The Gift of the Magi," Emmet Otter and his mother secretly enter the town talent contest, sacrificing the other’s prized possession, in hopes of winning the fifty dollar grand prize, to make their loved one’s Christmas so memorable.

The musical is highly entertaining and touching at the same time, without all the gooiness associated with most holiday entertainments. The score by Paul Williams incorporates many different styles and shows why he is a Hall of Fame songwriter and multiple award winner. You can listen to two original songs, "Alice Keep Dreaming" and "Waterville," composed by Paul Williams for this stage version and sung by the composer. The human cast, outfitted in costumes by The Henson Company, is marvelous, staying in character without devolving into an overly preening caricature of the creatures they portray (click here to view a slide show of the preliminary costume sketches.)

Kudos to The Goodspeed Opera House and The Jim Henson Company for transforming a 1970’s television special into a magical stage experience for all ages. Let’s hope this production will become a holiday tradition mainstay in Connecticut. Now playing through January 4th.

Sunday, December 14, 2008

Review of "Shrek the Musical"

Disney has been very successful in transforming its animated movies into hit Broadway musicals. Beginning with Beauty and the Beast in 1994 through the current The Little Mermaid, Disney has produced some of the most enduring shows in Broadway history—Beauty and the Beast is the sixth longest running production in Broadway history and The Lion King is number nine and climbing.

Seeking to replicate Disney’s enviable stage achievements DreamWorks Animation established a theatrical division in 2007. Their first plunge into musical theater is Shrek the Musical based, primarily, on the first Shrek film. Happily, the production is as entertaining as the screen version, helped by a tuneful, breezy score; a first-rate cast, and sumptuous sets and costumes.

The plot deviates from the movie just at the beginning of the musical where Shrek is thrown out onto the unsuspecting world by his parents, as they gleefully sing about the “Big Bright Beautiful World.” From there the storyline follows the film as Shrek and his wise-cracking companion, Donkey, seek to overturn the edict by Lord Farquaad, which allowed the fairy tale characters in the land of Duloc to overrun the ogre’s swamp. Farquaad agrees to rescind his order so long as the green-skinned Shrek rescues Princess Fiona from the dragon guarded tower so she can be his bride. What makes the stage production of Shrek the Musical work is that it can be appreciated at many different levels—whether you are a tween or adult. Like the movie, this is not necessarily a children’s show, as evidenced early on during our introduction to the fairyland creatures.

Brian D’arcy James plays the hulking Shrek with a combination of pathos and braggadocio. His dramatic musical theater roles, most notably in Titanic and Sweet Smell of Success, has given James the background to present the character in more of a three-dimensional manner as opposed to a cookie cutter rendering as portrayed in the William Steig children’s book (which the movies are based on) or the aforementioned film version. Shrek may be misunderstood as be tramps, roars, and belches across the Broadway Theatre stage, but we also come to realize he is a living being with feelings, hopes and desires.

For the role of Princess Fiona the production required an actress who could more than stand up to Shrek’s shenanigans as well as the larger than life milieu of the show. Fortunately, an audience is once again blessed with Sutton Foster in the cast. Foster is the reigning queen of musical theater comedy as she so aptly demonstrated in Thoroughly Modern Millie and The Drowsy Chaperone (It also reveals how much her talents were wasted in Young Frankenstein). Her comedic timing is perfect and whether her character needs to execute the perfect pratfall, a rousing tap dance routine with the rats of Hamelin, or an emotion-laden ballad, Foster is more than up to the task. Her counterpoint to James’ Shrek gives the musical a necessary balance.

The third actor of this talented triumvirate is Christopher Seiber as the vertically challenged Lord Farquaand. Bringing to life the diminutive ruler was essential to the success of the production and the creative team has scored a knockout. It’s not worth the time to explain “how” they depict a pint-sized Seiber, but let it suffice that his mere presence on stage is hilarious not to mention his big dance numbers.

Two other cast members that deserve mention are Daniel Breaker as the quick quipped Donkey and John Tartaglia in multiple roles but, primarily, Pinocchio. Breaker ratchets up the energy level for his performance, only occasionally providing too much embellishment, while Tartaglia is a gem as the wooden puppet.

The score by Jeanine Tesori and David Lindsay-Abaire is light-hearted, cheerful, yet earnest in expressing the feelings and dreams of the denizens of Duloc. Tesori, who has penned the music for a number of Broadway productions, shows real craftsmanship and variety in her work, from the rousing “I Know It’s Today,” to the silly fanfare as the fairyland creatures depart from Shrek’s swamp. First-time lyricist, Lindsay-Abaire, who also wrote the book of the show, demonstrates he is more than up to the challenge of providing first-rate lyrics to a big budget, splashy Broadway musical.

Director Jason Moore never lets the show bog down, working well with his creative team and choreographer, Josh Prince. He incorporates enough schtick to keep the musical well-paced without descending to chaos. Only the castle scene that introduces Dragon is a bit slipshod and unbalanced.

The sets and costumes by Tim Hatley are both inspired and vibrant. He receives kudos for his outfitting of Shrek—yes, he is green—as well as his creative flair in bringing Lord Farquaand to life. His sets are whimsical and expressive without overpowering the show.

Choreographer Josh Prince adds some razzle dazzle to the musical with a couple of fanciful production numbers.

Shrek the Musical, a welcome addition to the soon-to-be depleted Broadway theatre scene.