THE LOOP — In a holiday season filled with famous high-stakes stories — a dancing nutcracker battling a rodent army, a haunted miser fending off damnation — one humble tale about impoverished woodland creatures might seem an unlikely contender for your attention. But a stage adaptation of a four-decade-old cult classic intends to do just that.
Based on a 1971 children’s book, “Emmet Otter’s Jug-Band Christmas” began its path to the present-day Chicago theater scene when Jim Henson and his beloved company adapted it for TV in 1977. Following the smashing success of “Sesame Street” but two years before Kermit and friends conquered the silver screen, “Emmett Otter” has remained one of Henson’s lesser-known work for four decades. Now a live stage adaptation arrives at the Studebaker Theater inside the Fine Arts Building, 410 S. Michigan Ave., for a six-week run that closes on New Year’s Eve.
Utilizing human performers as well as puppets from Jim Henson’s Creature Shop, the musical is led by director-choreographer Christopher Gattelli, writer-producer Timothy Allen McDonald and composer Paul Williams. Together, the ensemble aims to elevate this comforting tale into a December tradition on par with those of Rudolph, Frosty and The Grinch.
The team first mounted the show in 2008 in Connecticut, then again, off-Broadway, in 2021. For Chicago this holiday season, they’ve refined it further, rearranging existing songs and adding new ones.
“This really is a dream come true to work on the show,” said Gattelli, a Tony-winning choreographer whose credits include “Newsies,” “The SpongeBob Musical,” and TV’s “Schmigadoon.” He remembers watching the show on HBO “before VCRs and everything. Me and my sister would plan our day around it. It was before ‘The Muppet Movie,’ and you just didn’t see things like that. It’s just really special.”
A deceptively simple tale, “Emmet Otter” follows the titular protagonist and his widowed mom, who struggle to make ends meet doing odd jobs and washing laundry in a humble hamlet called Frogtown Hollow. Despite the show’s title, it’s not an overtly Christmassy story, although Ma and Emmet’s desire to give each other a holiday gift drives the action, as both choose to enter a talent show hoping to win the $50 prize. (Spoiler alert: Those familiar with the famous O. Henry story “The Gift of the Magi,” which inspired this tale, will recognize the ironic turn of events.)
Despite some sadness, the show locates the loving hearts of its characters — well, except for the mayor’s snooty wife and the selfish rascals in the Riverbottom Nightmare Band. Rest assured that the musical leaves its audience feeling like they’ve been wrapped in a warm blanket and handed a cup of hot cocoa.
“To me, ‘Emmet Otter’ has the essence of Jim Henson in it,” the legendary Williams, now 83, told Block Club while in Chicago for rehearsals. “I describe it as ‘the elegance of kindness’ — a sweetness with a little bit of an edge.”
Williams should know: The two creators were longtime collaborators. An Oscar- and Grammy-winning songwriter, Williams wrote some of his most enduring music for Henson projects — especially the now-classic “The Rainbow Connection.” He was also Emmy-nominated for “When The River Meets the Sea,” an “Emmet Otter” song popularized by John Denver’s rendition with Robin the Frog (Kermit’s nephew) and eventually sung at Jim Henson’s memorial.
“I love, love this story. The characters are so real to me,” Williams continued. “The point in the horizon that we sail to is the story. Looking at this new version, there were places where it makes sense to really expand, like in the new opening number, ‘Waterville’.”
The production now runs 75 minutes with no intermission. “The continuing work that Tim and Chris have done is really, really sharp,” Williams added. “It’s a show for everyone: It’s funny, it’s touching, there’s a bunch of new songs, and there’s some squirrels that steal the show.”
The original TV special includes a brief appearance by a squirrel troupe at the talent show. In this version, the expanded sequence features four puppets and a Chicago actor, Sawyer Smith, who plays their mother-cum-ringleader in a hilarious acrobatic routine.
“In our production, Madame Squirrel has four children: Nutella, Skippy, Jiffy and Tiny,” said Smith, who grew up in Iowa and, as a kid, often watched a VHS copy of “Emmet Otter” with their sister. “All of the mother figures you see throughout are pretty warm and endearing, but Madame Squirrel is always sort of exasperated. Being the mother of very tiny fast squirrels is exhausting!”
“We keep trying to make it better,” said Gatelli, regarding this third iteration of the musical. “You don’t need to be a kid to enjoy it. We tap into that [Henson] sensibility — we even have a whole talent show with a very adult edge to it. We’re creating something for everyone, and cracking that code is part of the joy.”
“Emmet Otter’s Jug-Band Christmas” opens Monday and runs through Dec. 31 at the Studebaker Theater in the Fine Arts Building, 410 S. Michigan Ave. Tickets range from $35-$119 and are available online.
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