A song of Bernadette (Peters, of course)

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Buckle up, Broadway Babies. It’s time to revel in all things Bernadette. The loveable diva Bernadette Peters, she of the curls, the va-va-voom figure and the knockout voice, will return to the concert stage in Davies Hall to perform with the San Francisco Symphony on Tuesday, July 23 (for ticket info, click here). This is a re-scheduled concert after the pesky musicians’ strike scrapped Peters’ previous plans to dazzle us with her latest concert.

Most recently, Peters popped up on NBC’s love-to-hate musical TV show “Smash,” and she was one of the best things about the show (along with the songs by Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman). The 65-year-old beauty’s last turn on Broadway was in the stunning revival of Stephen Sondheim’s Follies, and she proved she’s lost nothing in the dramatic department.

The most astonishing thing about Peters is the duration and diversity of her career. She has done it all. And now, thanks to the wonders of YouTube, let’s revisit some highlights, shall we?

In 1979, Peters starred in The Jerk with then-love Steve Martin. She’s hilarious, but this duet on “Tonight You Belong to Me” is sincerely sweet.

One of the greatest things about the ’70s was the last hurrah of the variety show. Peters was such a versatile and appealing performer that she fit right in to the long-gone format. Here she is on the best of the ’70s variety shows, “The Carol Burnett Show,” singing “All That Jazz” from March, 1975.

More proof that Peters is a superb comedienne, this comedy number by Marilyn Miller and Sheryl Hardwick from The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson.”

All that wonderfully gooey ’70s cheesiness spilled over into the ’80s. Need proof? Look no further than Peters performing with Peter Allen at the 1982 Academy Awards in a tribute to Irving Berlin.

Peters is a two-time Tony Award winner (with seven nominations) and a force of musical theater nature. Here’s Sondheim’s “Broadway Baby” performed with John Williams and the Boston Pops.

This is one of my favorite Peters performances: “I’m Flying” from Peter Pan from an appearance on Carol Burnett’s “Carol and Company” in 1991.

My favorite Peters Broadway show is Sondheim’s Sunday in the Park with George, in which she played Dot, muse to painter Georges Seurat (played by Mandy Patinkin). This is “Move On” from 1984.

Let’s end this musical melange with the Muppets and Peters singing “Just One Person” from a 1977 appearance on “The Muppet Show.”

Dirty puppets + improv = hilarity

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Stuffed and Unstrung puppeteers (from left) Colleen Smith, Brian Henson, and Ted Michaels let the Muppets run wild. Below: Michael Oosterom (left) and Tyler Bunch let bunnies do what bunnies do.Photos by Carol Rosegg

If you’ve ever wondered what happens when the Muppets go blue, check out Stuffed and Unstrung, the blush-inducing, laugh-happy puppet improv show from Henson Alternative, the adult arm of the Jim Henson Company.

Six puppeteers, one video camera, two screens and a wall of puppets with a penchant for f-bombs combine for about 100 minutes of comedy bliss – brought to us by SHN. All the usual improv stuff is here – suggestions from the audience (“Prostitution!” seemed to come up a lot at Thursday’s opening-night performance), interactions with willing suckers pulled form their seats (one lucky guy actually got to operate a Muppet on stage – an actual Muppet! Lucky bastard) and all kinds of shiny, happy nastiness.

And the laughs just keep on coming. An old man and a beaver sledding down a hill quickly turns dirty. Three aliens visiting a Castro gay bar quickly turns into an orgy. And a re-creation of a couple’s first date fairly drips with sexual innuendo. Good times.

All the puppets on stage are created by the Henson shop, which makes them Muppets, but these are wacky characters and supporting players from various and sundry Muppet projects from around the globe. There’s no hint of Kermit or Gonzo or Miss Piggy.

But there is, amid the mayhem, some wonderful vintage stuff paying tribute to Jim Henson, Jane Henson and Frank Oz. From the 1950s, we get re-creations of “Java,” the Oz/Henson collaboration involving two Slinky-like wormy things, and we get “I’ve Grown Accustomed to His Face” (performed on tape by a glorious Rosemary Clooney), a sort of cannibalistic love scene.

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There’s a song called “Puppet Up!” (the previous name for this show) to open the show and introduce us to the way this show is going to work. You can watch the giant video screens if you want to watch the puppet show, or you can watch the puppeteers, with their eyes always on the monitors, work the puppets for the cameras. Both shows are pretty entertaining, but it’s absolutely masterful the way these puppeteers manipulate space to create effects on camera.

Hosted by Patrick Bristow, who, along with Brian Henson (son of Muppet founder Jim Henson), created this show, Stuffed and Unstrung is actually pretty structured for an improv show. There’s are several improvised musical numbers (accompanied by a keyboardist tucked away stage left), a long-form scene in Act 2 and some showing off of the latest “live animation” puppetry technology that is pretty mind blowing.

In truth, the evening really cries out to be 90 minutes with no intermission. Act 2 is pretty thin and is over almost as soon as it starts (with Brian Henson doing a marvelous tap number with an old man usher puppet).

As with any improv show, there’s a risk that scenes will fall flat or contain some dead space. On opening night, the only scene that really tanked was a TV-themed sketch. The audience chose a “Dr. Who”-like show on PBS and Shark Week on the Discovery Channel. Performed by hot dog puppets on sticks (conveniently available for sale in the lobby), the scenes revealed that the puppeteers didn’t have much working knowledge of “Dr. Who” and that without a shark puppet, they were adrift on a sea of uninteresting frankfurters.

But the evening as a whole is highly enjoyable and full of belly laughs. Puppeteers don’t get any better than this, so just watching them work is a rewarding experience, but there is a lot of comedy to be had as well. From little titters to full-on, Gerard Depardieu pee-on-the-floor funny, the laughs are constant, and so is the childlike delight with a decidedly adult slant to it.

[bonus interview]
I had the opportunity to chat with Brian Henson and Patrick Bristow about Stuffed and Unstrung for a feature in the San Francisco Chronicle. Read it here.

[bonus video]
Watch the first few minutes of Stuffed and Unstrung:

Stuffed and Unstrung continues through Aug. 27 at the Curran Theatre, 445 Geary St., San Francisco. Tickets are $30-$65. Call 888-746-1799 or visit www.shnsf.com.

This Composer really is dead

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Let’s hear it for the French horns and the trombones – some of the extraordinary puppets created for the world premiere of Lemony Snicket’s The Composer Is Dead at Berkeley Repertory Theatre. Below: Geoff Hoyle is the sole human sharing the stage with puppets. Photos courtesy of www.kevinberne.com

There’s a moment of absolute magic in the world premiere of Lemony Snicket’s The Composer Is Dead now at Berkeley Repertory Theatre.

We’ve just been subjected to a rather dispiriting film (more on that in a minute), a sort of theatrical appetizer, and we’re making the transition into the main course. The curtain on the Roda Theatre rises to reveal an absolutely magnificent set that looks like a life-size Victorian paper theater.

There’s an orchestra full of puppets – each personality-infused face affixed to a representation of an instrument – and Geoff Hoyle (the only human in the show) as the Inspector in a fantastic plaid suit preparing to solve the crime of who murdered the world’s greatest, formerly living composer.

The reveal of the set in all its glory is by far the best part of this strangely moribund evening. The show, including the movie, is just over an hour, and yet it seems much longer.

The idea was to take the piece Lemony Snicket (aka San Francisco writer Daniel Handler) and composer Nathaniel Stookey wrote for the San Francisco Symphony as sort of a latter day Peter and the Wolf – let’s get kids excited about classical music! – and turn it into a marvelous theatrical experience.

The work of Phantom Limb – Jessica Grindstaff and Erik Sanko – is truly marvelous. They’re responsible for the puppets, sets and costumes. The visual palette they employ is sumptuous and full of character. It’s just too bad they don’t have more of a story to tell.

I expected more music (performed by the SF Symphony via a recording), but what we hear of Stookey’s work is highly enjoyable. We mostly get Hoyle’s Inspector interacting with the puppets (well, at any rate he’s traipsing about behind the puppets). He actually has more interaction with the moving and twirling paper puppets that skitter about the stage.

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If kids leave this show with any overwhelming inspiration, it will be to work with puppets – not to become a lifelong lover of classical music or live theater.

There are two things I dislike enormously in live theater: movies and recorded voices, though I’ve seen both used well. In terms of movies, the two examples that come to mind are All Wear Bowlers, which unfolded on the Roda Stage in 2006, and Kneehigh Theatre’s Brief Encounter, which ran at American Conservatory Theater last season. Both used film in ingenious ways that heightened the live theater experience.

The film that opens this show, called The Magic of Living, Breathing Theater, is bathed in irony. Hoyle plays a sycophantic host who will present the audience, especially “the children because they’re young,” with an introduction to theatrical pleasures. Then he shows a movie of a marionette giving a slide show.

Given that this is a Lemony Snicket script, things go off the rails as we learn that, among other things, the theater is a mess because the director is crying, the actor is mute and the lighting designer is lazy. Hoyle interacts with the puppets on film, and the timing is expert. But this zany backstage territory was covered with much more humor and heart by the Muppets every week during the run of their series.

There’s a cool distance that pervades the work of Mr. Snicket, and that’s true of both the film and the Composer portion of this hour-long evening. The puppet orchestra and Victorian theater are fun for a while, but then we need story and character, both of which are nominal here.

Director Tony Taccone’s technically astute production also lacks emotional connection of any kind, which is not surprising given that Snicket traffics in droll wordplay. And the voices of everyone but Hoyle are recorded. The necessity for that is understandable but it’s unfortunate that so much of the magic of this living and breathing theater is pre-recorded.

The only time I laughed all evening was during the film credits at the end – bloopers and jokes abound, and I had more fun in those few minutes than in the preceding hour.


Lemony Snicket’s The Composer Is Dead continues through Jan. 15 in Berkeley Repertory Theatre’s Roda Theatre, 2015 Addison St., Berkeley. Tickets are $34-$73 (with half-price discounts for anyone younger than 30). Call 510 647-2949 or visit www.berkeleyrep.org for information.

Reviving Muppet mania: Next stop Broadway?

I’m always surprised when theater pops up in pop culture, more specifically, in popcorn movies.

Sitting at home, I was thoroughly enjoying Forgetting Sarah Marshall, a comedy written by and starring Jason Segel (of TV’s “How I Met Your Mother” – an admirable sitcom set in New York but none of the 20somethings ever goes to the theater!). Segel has something of a Jack Lemmon sad sack vibe that lends itself to poignant comedy. He’s also part of the Judd Apatow stable of actors, so his comedy is often taken in the vulgar, gross-out direction, and he’s good at that, too.

The surprising thing in Forgetting Sarah Marshall is that Segel’s character, the composer of tense music for a hit TV crime show, has been working for years on a “Dracula” musical. We hear bits and pieces of it throughout the show [SPOILER ALERT – stop reading because I’m going to discuss events at the end of the movie now] and at the end, Segel bursts out of his post-break-up depression by producing his Dracula musical…WITH PUPPETS!

Not only puppets, but puppets created by the Jim Henson Company, which technically makes them Muppets, which technically makes them awesome.

Real life and movie life intertwined here because it seems Segel actually had been working for years on a Dracula musical, and he also happened to be a huge Muppet fan in real life.

Though logic is in short supply in Hollywood, the folks at Disney took a meeting with Segel and figured out that he and Nick Stoller, the director of Forgetting Sarah Marshall, were the right guys to reinvigorate the Muppet franchise, so they’re working on the next Muppet movie.

That’s all well and good, but what about a Muppet Broadway musical?

Avenue Q proved that audiences will happily watch humans interact with puppets while singing songs, and though the Muppets themselves created a Broadway show in the 1984 movie The Muppets Take Manhattan, we’ve never had the real thing. Those Disney people are supposed to be so savvy when it comes to marketing, but why haven’t the Muppets been on Broadway?

OK, so we’re one step closer to that with the development of the ultra-charming 1977 made-for-TV Muppet special “Emmet Otter’s Jug-Band Christmas” as a stage musical utilizing actors and puppets. The show has its world premiere Dec. 4 at Goodspeed Musicals in Connecticut.

If the show is wonderful (and how could it not be with songs by Paul Williams, who’s beefing up the already terrific score), perhaps that will be the necessary step toward bringing the big Muppet stars – Kermit, Miss Piggy, Fozzie, etc. – to the stage at long last.

For those in need of a fresh Muppet fix, we’ll have to wait until Dec. 17 when NBC airs “A Muppets Christmas: Letters to Santa,” a special starring Broadway stage veterans Nathan Lane, Jane Krakowski, Jesse L. Martin, Whoopi Goldberg and Richard Griffiths. Williams is contributing songs.

Here’s a clip from the Broadway spectacular “Manhattan Melodies” at the Biltmore Theatre, the finale from “The Muppets Take Manhattan.”

`Emmett Otter’ on stage

Now here’s a no-brainer: there’s finally going to be a stage musical version of the classic 1977 Muppet made-for-TV musical “Emmet Otter’s Jug-Band Christmas.”

Variety’s Gordon Cox reports that the Jim Henson Co. and iTheatrics are teaming up to create a stage version that will utilize actors and puppets. Paul Williams (Oscar winner for co-writing “Evergreen”) wrote the fantastic score and is on board to contribute more material, and Christopher Gatelli, a current Tony nominee for choreographing the Broadway revival of South Pacific, is slated to direct and co-write the book with Tim McDonald, head of iTheatrics, which is based on a Lillian and Russell Hoban children’s book of the same name.

I remember seeing the original “Emmet Otter” on HBO when it first aired, and it became an instant favorite. My little brother and I knew every line of dialogue and every song. A few years ago, I gave my brother and his wife a copy on DVD (which differs slightly than the old videotape we had), and we watch it every Christmas. The great thing about the show is that it’s set at Christmas but isn’t all that Christmas-y. There are no Christmas songs (don’t change that, Paul Williams!), and the story deals with a very poor widow, who washes clothes and knits socks for a living, and her son, who makes money doing odd jobs around town. During the Christmas season (after Ma and Emmet get their traditional Christmas branch), the town hosts a talent show, with a cash prize of $200 (think rustic “American Idol”). In a sort of O. Henry twist, Emmet has to put a hole in Ma’s washtub so he can play washtub bass in his friends’ jug band, and Ma hocks Emmet’s tool chest so she can buy fabric to make a new dress to perform in during the show.

It’s all very sweet without being stupid, and Kermit the Frog, wearing a scarf and a flannel shirt, narrates. What’s not to love?

Read the Vareity story here: www.variety.com

Here’s a lovely fan-created trailer that makes reference to all the cuts that were made in broadcasts after the original 1977 airing on HBO: