There are very few things that come close to symbolizing the purest essence of Americana than Jim Henson’s Muppets. From their origin in 1955 on “Sam & Friends” to “The Muppet Show” in 1976, to the “The Muppet Movie” in 1979, not to mention the modern-day 2011 and 2014 films, and even the 2015-16 documentary-style series on ABC, there aren’t enough iterations whereby one would grow weary of such personable characters.
They can’t overstay their welcome, because we grew up with Kermit the Frog’s sanguineness, Miss Piggy’s diva behavior, Fozzie Bear’s jokes, Rowlf the Dog’s musicianship, Gonzo’s magic, and the like. Their mere reminder assists us with once again relocating our inner child, so we can laugh with ease, or even cry, at things that our outer-adult shells have become cynical about and desensitized to. And this sentiment travels cross-generationally and remains pervasive today for the children who are captivatingly introduced to the Muppets for the first time.
Between September 8 through the 10th, the cast of the colorful Muppets, including the main and lesser-known members, returned, this time in live-and-personal form at the historic Hollywood Bowl for the two-act “The Muppets Take the Bowl” firework-accentuated spectacular. They were joined by the host of the evening, “Saturday Night Live” alum Bobby Moynihan, the Hollywood Bowl orchestra, its principal conductor Thomas Wilkins, and even the aged bourgeoisie duo of Statler and Waldorf, who “sat” in the crowd and intermittently made riotously critical comments about the show on the large video screens.
The production was exquisitely put together with an invitingly lush and cheery-red stage (credit goes to production designer Andy Walmsley), and carried out by otherworldly voice-manipulating puppeteers (or, more appropriately, muppeteers) clad and cloaked in pitch-black attire, so as to not detract any attention from the “stars” of the night. But, truth be told, if we were to unfurl the veil of illusion, we’d find that the immensely talented Dave Goelz, Bill Barretta, Eric Jacobsen, Matt Vogel, David Rudman, and Peter Linz, among several others, are the wizards behind the wonder.
Of course, writers Jim Lewis, Andrew Williams, Kirk Thatcher and Matthew Barnette, along with music director Ed Mitchell, choreographers Michael Rooney and Danny Valle, and producers Tracy Gilbert and Jessica Stewart deserve many accolades for why the extravaganza was a sumptuously visual feast not only on stage, but on camera. The verisimilitude presented was uncanny at times, insofar that the audience would react in real time to what was, objectively, stitched polyester and velvet fabric talking back to them. The fact of the matter is that we forgot they were puppets from the moment Sam Eagle (Jacobsen, Paul McGinnis) and Scooter (Rudman, Bruce Lanoi) opened the festivities.
What followed thereafter was, essentially, the Muppets’ greatest hits, though lovingly tailor-made for Hollywood and Southern California at large, with witty, hysterical, energetic, and even heartwarming entertainment, wrapped up in the cuddliest blanket for a breezy Tinseltown evening.
The first act was rife with the kind of dry and even awkwardly hilarious humor that makes the Muppets so innocently outlandish. From the very outset, Moynihan played his role exceedingly well as the grateful host, who was oftentimes oblivious to what was going on. Comedically, he was the straight man in a lot of scenes that were meant to come across as ad-libbed – without a working script – and it materialized with terrific results. For instance, the “Happy Feet” tap-dance number with Moynihan – adorned with puppet pants (McGinnis) — and Kermit (Vogel, Drew Massey, Alice Dinnean) seemed almost impromptu, adding to the suspension of disbelief. It was also one of the many memorable parts of the show because of how precise the puppetry was, down to the accuracy of every tuned tap step.
Likewise, a joke about “stretching” the show — due to a lack of material — shared between Kermit and “stage manager” Scooter added to the anything-can-happen vibe of the production, though it was the Pepé the King Prawn ( Barretta, Mike Quinn, Dinnean) and Thomas Wilkins exchange that unanimously captured everyone’s attention because of how abruptly confrontational, albeit uproarious, it was. During the skit, Wilkins, who was also impressively on-point as an actor, received an overhead-speaker message that his “IConduct” license-plated car was about to be towed. He left briefly, only for Pepé to suddenly appear with four batons (one in each hand), who tried to lead the Hollywood Bowl orchestra with hot-tempered Latin jazz. This lasted only briefly, as Wilkins returned indignantly, wanting to play Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, culminating in a baton duel that ended in a potpourri of jocularity.
This segment was only topped by an episodic-TV spoof (e.g., Pepé and his vocal-frying family in “Keeping Up With the Crustaceans” and the Swedish Chef in “The Walking Bread”) as well as a rollicking set by Dr. Teeth and the Electric Mayhem. Comprised of Dr. Teeth (Barretta, Tim Lagasse), Floyd (Vogel, Julianne Buescher), Janice (Rudman, Dinnean), Zoot (Goelz), Lips (Linz) and the head-banging Animal (Jacobsen, Michelan Sisti), the idiosyncratic band performed three songs, the most notable of which was Janice and Floyd’s romantically moving duet of “Home” (written by Alex Ebert and Jade Castrinos).
Act two gloriously continued the momentum of the first with unforgettable song-skits that provoked a spectrum of emotions from the audience. It began with the crowd-pleaser “Bohemian Rhapsody” by Queen, which involved Beaker (Rudman, Lanoil) entertainingly singing Roger Taylor’s high notes, Animal (Jacobsen, Sisti, Massey) wondering where his “Mama” was, and the Chewbacca-esque Sweetums (Noel MacNeal, Dave Barclay) running around ominously. This offered an interesting twist on an indelible classic, as did the ghostly, minor-keyed “Boo Danube” – the Muppets’ take on Johann Strauss II’s “The Blue Danube Waltz.”
Continuing the light-hearted fare was an incomprehensibly funny skit between the Swedish Chef (Barretta, Linz) and Moynihan. The Chef demonstrated how to make his heavy-peppered potion of salsa, egging Moynihan to “taste” it (to his own fire-breathing detriment), which was, oddly enough, the Chef’s only intelligible word! Zaniness is a common denominator of Muppets sketch material, and there isn’t any one arguably more popular than “Mah Nà Mah Nà” by Piero Umiliani – the performance of which featured the disarmingly poor singing ability of Mahna Mahna (Barretta) and the two disapproving Snowths (Vogel, Linz). This was a master-class on comic timing, and getting into the correct position at the right time, which was perfectly epitomized by Barretta moving around with canny purpose.
The recurring theme of pinpoint on-stage teamwork among the puppeteers was similarly on full display during “Miss Piggy’s Big Number,” which entailed Miss Piggy (Jacobsen, McGinnis, Linz) being literally thrown around as she botched Adele’s “Hello” due to her ego-centric intransigence about rehearsal. It was another example of the tongue-in-cheek quirkiness that largely underscores what the Muppets are about. They don’t mind poking fun at each other, and they certainly don’t take themselves too seriously, which perhaps hints at a lesson or two we can draw from them.
The most significant lesson imparted by the Muppets, however, was that of love and friendship. It is one of the few things that should be held close to the heart, and never be taken for granted nor comprised on. This worthwhile message was best illustrated with Kermit’s (Vogel, Massey) touching performance of “The Rainbow Connection” (with him on the banjo), as it was, inclusive of a special appearance by co-songwriter Paul Williams, probably worth the price of admission alone. Along with a familial performance of the “The Magic Store,” and even the big, Fred Martin & Levite Camp choir-gilded finish for The Beatles’ “With a Little Help From My Friends,” the two-hour spectacle was everything one could hope for. To say the least, “The Muppets Take the Bowl” satisfied the craving of those who yearn for nostalgia and those who can absolutely get behind the notion of togetherness.
For more information about future events at the Hollywood Bowl, please visit hollywoodbowl.com