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“Emmet Otter’s Jug Christmas” at Studebaker

What a pleasure and privilege it is to have Jim Henson’s puppets in downtown Chicago during the holiday season!

The felt and furry creatures in “Emmet Otter’s Jug-Band Christmas,” the adorable new family show at the historic and newly renovated Studebaker Theatre, don’t have the fame of Kermit the Frog and Miss Piggy (but there is Doc Bullfrog, an amphibian), this water tells the story of the otter family). But they still manage to tap into the same reservoir of intergenerational affection we all feel for Henson’s seemingly responsive and endlessly interactive creations.

Henson’s crew, and therefore the producers of this show, can’t call them Muppets because that name was sold to Disney, but names don’t matter when you have this level of puppetry skill and, of course, the fruits of the act. Henson’s imagination is overdue, as this program is a live version of one of the great man’s most beloved works, a 1977 TV special about the Frogtown Hollow otter family that many families re-watch every holiday season.

There was ample evidence at Monday’s opening night that such families, and a few others, would be delighted to see it all come to life before them on stage in a beautiful picture book setting by scenic designer Anna Louizos. Also in the house was the famous songwriter and performer Paul Williams, a rightfully beloved man who wrote songs both for the TV show and for it, and whose aura created all kinds of excitement among those who knew he had written many songs. songs of their youth.

As fans of “The Muppet Show” know, Henson often structured his work like a kind of puppet vaudeville, with individual shows ending with a joke, a song or a clash of symbols. You won’t see the puppeteers in classic Henson style, and this segmented structure allowed him to zero in on his elaborate system of curtains and platforms. It’s one thing on TV, where there’s time to set up, but it’s another thing entirely on live broadcast. Yet the show, expertly and unpretentiously directed and choreographed by Christopher Gattelli, accomplishes this feat in a truly remarkable way.

The story, of course, is structured around a talent show that young mustelid Emmet (Andy Mientus) tries to win in order to buy a Christmas present for his penniless widowed mother (Kathleen Elizabeth Monteleone). He participates in the same multi-genre contest to buy his child the guitar he desires. In the end, two mutually selfless acts come together for the good of all.

Set to a musical score but still much larger than most people expected, the 80-minute show combines live actors and puppets in classic Henson style. It’s fun to watch the likes of Sawyer Smith and Emily Rohm chat with puppet squirrels, gopher snakes, and weasels. I wish the high-end heavy sound was clearer, and I’m not sure if that’s a matter of a hard-surface venue needing acoustic work, finding a better mix, or the need for superior equipment. Maybe all three. Whatever the reason, the fact is that audiences now have advanced soundbars in their basements and are not used to chanting lyrics; Considering the quality of the remaining work here, manufacturers are advised to work on this issue in the coming days.

“Emmet Otter,” which has a lively book written by Timothy Allen McDonald (also executive producer) and Gattelli (after the original Russell and Lillian Hoban story), is aiming for Broadway next year. I would suggest finding more moments of emotional interaction between human characters and perhaps adding a few well-positioned songs outside of the dominant American palette. Williams’ music is pretty great (especially “When the River Meets the Sea”) and pretty complete in its bluegrass ethos, but although they’re ideal for TV, the numbers are often a little too short for the top-tier human leads. Connect in person. Williams could certainly add a pop-country song or two in the vein of “Trust That Branch”; Almost all musicals benefit from a lot of variety, and this will be no exception, especially if they’re planning a live orchestra, which they absolutely should be. I’d love to hear about one in Chicago.

Matt Furtado, James Silson and Jordan Brownlee Mat in “Emmet Otter's Jug Band Christmas” at the Studebaker Theatre.

Still, any fan of Henson (which should be pretty much everyone) shouldn’t miss this truly spectacular addition to the seasonal attractions offered in Chicago’s Loop. This is an incredibly happy and relaxing experience, ideal for all ages. It’s a needed balm for our city, to be sure, but it also attracts suburban residents and downtown visitors with the theatrical quality that has long been this city’s cultural signature.

Indeed, welcome to Michigan Avenue, Yancy Woodchuck, Doc Bullfrog, Wendell Porcupine, Stan Weasel and the rest of the gang, even Stinky Skunk. Peace and love to you all.

Theater Cycle

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Chris Jones is a Tribune critic.

cjones5@chicagotribune.com

Review: “Emmet Otter’s Jug-Band Christmas” (3.5 stars)

When: until December 31

Where: Studebaker Theatre, 410 S. Michigan Ave.

Working time: 1 hour 20 minutes

Tickets: $43-$127 (fees included) and by phone at 312-753-3210. emmetotterlive.com. Note: Approved parking is available for $13 at the Grant Park South Garage.

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