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A CurtainUp Connecticut Review
Jim Henson's Emmet Otter
An O-Henry-like story, lots of humor and puppet magic all combine to create a wholesome, fun-for-all-ages production in Jim Henson's Emmet Otter. playing its second year as the Christmas offering at the Goodspeed Opera House in East Haddam. Christopher Gatelli, co-writer of the book with Timothy A. McDonald, skillfully helms the multi-faceted production as well as choreographs actors and puppets alike in a delightful story based on the popular children's book Emmet Otter's Jug-Band Christmas by Russell and Lillian Hoban, and a television special by the same name directed by Jim Henson and written by Jerry Juhl. The twangy, toe-tapping music and lyrics are by PaulWilliams.
Jane (Connecticut's own Meg Guzulescu) and her dad, Russ (Stephen Bienske) awkwardly try to deal with each other on the eve of the first Christmas without Jane's mom, who has passed away. Russ over tries to create a fun holiday with decorations and terrible cookies, but Jane just wants to hang out with her friends. They find common ground when Russ finds a copy of Emmet Otter's Jug-Band Christmas, which Jane's mom used to read to her. Suddenly the pages come to life, thanks to the help of skillful puppeteers and actors amazingly clad as all manner of woods creatures (Gregg Barnes, costume design) on a fanciful set that even includes a replica of the opera house itself.
Money is tight in Frogtown Hollow, and Emmet Otter (Justin Bohon) and his Ma (Kathy Fitzgerald) have hocked most of their belongings following Pa's death and can hardly make ends meet using their two remaining possessions: Pa's toolbox which Emmet uses for odd jobs and Ma's washtub, which she uses to take in laundry. Suddenly, Doc Bullfrog offers $50 to the winner of Waterville's first talent contest, and Ma and Emmet both see a chance to buy the other a really swell Christmas present. Ma sells Emmet's toolbox to buy material to make a dress so she can sing in the contest and win the cash to buy Emmet the guitar he wants. Emmet puts a hole in Ma's washtub to play in a jug-band with the hopes of winning the money for a down payment on a piano for Ma. Eventually, everyone finds that the only gift that matters is having each other.
In a delightful side story that continues throughout the show, four squirrel puppets try to "hatch" a pine cone and grow a Christmas tree. Their acrobatic act is one of the highlights of the talent show, which includes a peeved possum, a foxy fox, a vamping mink and a River Bottom Boys Nightmare rock band with a snake and water-squirting fish members.
It's a lot of good, wholesome fun, with the youngsters giggling at the silly antics and the adults laughing outright as some of the corny humor. This year's version includes improved sightlines that allow the audience to see the puppet magic taking place downstage better.