Review: Emmet Otter’s Jug-Band Christmas Tells an Adorable Holiday Story with a Menagerie of Puppets
Much of the theater on offer this month involves a nutcracker or Christmas ghosts. And we have you covered on those performances. But if you are looking for something different in family entertainment, I suggest you check out the simply adorable show at the Studebaker Theatre—Jim Henson’s Emmet Otter’s Jug-Band Christmas.
Whether you go by yourself, with friends, or take a relative or a random kid, you’ll discover a heartwarming story that conveys the spirit of kindness and cooperation embodied in all our December holidays. A menagerie of enchanting puppets cavorts with humans in costumes that feature glorious long tails, furry ears and paws. (Costumes by Gregg Barnes and puppets created by Jim Henson’s Creature Shop.)
Our hero is Emmet Otter (Andy Mientus) who lives with his Ma (Kathleen Elizabeth Monteleone) as they try to keep their lives together on their meager income, mostly from Ma doing laundry for rich folks in their town of Waterville. When Mayor Fox (Kevin Covert) announces Waterville’s first annual Christmas talent show (with a grand prize of $50), Ma and Emmet and his friends begin planning how they can enter and win.
Emmet and his friends—Harvey Beaver, Charlie Muskrat and Wendell Porcupine—decide to form a jug band, with Emmet playing the washtub bass. Unfortunately this requires Emmet to decide if he will drill a hole in Ma’s washtub, thus affecting her ability to continue her laundry business. He decides to take the gamble on winning the prize (shared four ways, it’s still a lot of money). Then he would be able to make a down payment on the piano that Ma has always wanted.
Meanwhile, Ma is deciding if she should sell Emmet’s tool kit (left to him by his late Pa) so she can buy fabric to make a new dress in which she will perform a song in the talent contest. If she wins, she can buy Emmet the guitar with the mother-of-pearl inlay displayed in the window of Mrs. Mink’s Music Emporium. (That may remind you of the plot of the O. Henry story “The Gift of the Magi.”)
I won’t tell you how the story ends (no spoilers here). But I will say that the first annual Waterville Talent Show, presided over by Mayor Fox as the Great Impresario, is the highlight of the play. He introduces each entrant with flair and each one performs a brief number. (The dance and striptease by Mrs. Mink (Sharriese Hamilton) is delightful.)
The music and lyrics in Emmet Otter’s Jug-Band Christmas are fresh and tuneful—as you would expect since the work is by multi-award-winning composer Paul Williams (The Muppet Movie). “When the River Meets the Sea” is especially memorable, as sung by Ma and Emmet and reprised later by the whole ensemble.
Timothy Allen McDonald is book writer and lead producer of the live theatrical adaptation of Jim Henson’s Emmet Otter’s Jug-Band Christmas. The play, based on an illustrated children’s book by Lillian and Russell Hoban, was originally a television special, first shown in 1977. It’s directed, choreographed and co-written by Tony Award-winner Christopher Gattelli (Newsies), and features puppets created by Jim Henson’s Creature Shop. The theatrical production was staged on Broadway during the 2021 holiday season.
Scenic design, including a river on which Emmet rows a boat so that Ma can deliver her laundry, is by Anna Louizos with lighting by Jen Schriever. Larry Pressgrove is music director.
Composer Paul Williams will participate in a post-show talkback after the 7pm performance on Friday, December 8. The talkback is open to anyone holding tickets for the performance. Producer/co-writer Timothy Allen McDonald will host the Q & A and reveal behind-the-scenes secrets with Williams, cast members and puppeteers,
Emmet Otter’s Jug-Band Christmas continues at the Studebaker Theater, 410 S. Michigan Ave. in the Fine Arts Building, through December 31. Running time is about 75 minutes with no intermission. (However, never fear if you have squirmy kids. The theater has provisions for kids who need to take a break or stretch their legs.) Tickets, starting at $35 ($43 including fees), may be purchased at the Studebaker Theater box office, online at emmetotterlive.com, or by calling 312-753-3210. Private balcony boxes for up to 6 people are available for family-friendly pricing of $300, including fees.
For more information on this and other plays, see theatreinchicago.com.
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Nancy S Bishop
Nancy S. Bishop is publisher and Stages editor of Third Coast Review. She’s a member of the American Theatre Critics Association and a 2014 Fellow of the National Critics Institute at the Eugene O’Neill Theater Center. You can read her personal writing on pop culture at nancybishopsjournal.com, and follow her on Twitter @nsbishop. She also writes about film, books, art, architecture and design.