Mitchell Stein – The Feinstein/54 Below in Manhattan, NY is the legendary home to some of Broadway’s finest performances and some truly talented performers. The 54 Below regularly puts on show’s paying tribute to some of the finest names in music, so naturally, that includes The Muppets. This season on November 20th, the Feinstein/54 Below put on another spectacular performance of their phenomenal show, 54 Celebrates The Muppets, featuring a fantastic cast of performers. Combined with brilliant musical performances in true Broadway fashion, 54 Celebrates The Muppets was the best once-in-a-lifetime event that anyone could hope for from an unofficial celebration of Jim Henson’s works.
Despite the fact that the show is not licensed or participated in part by Disney, Sesame Workshop, or The Jim Henson Company, the fine folks at the 54 Below have put on a truly wonderful celebration of the music created by Jim Henson, by fans for fans. The show brought the music elements of The Muppets to life like never before with talent and care, from a talented team to pull it all together.
The performances were hosted by two-time Sesame Street guest star, Richard Kind (Inside Out), who’s off-beat comedic style and warmth made him the perfect candidate to host a show celebrating The Muppets. Kind shared his experiences of working twice on Sesame Street, and began and ended the show in the goofy costumes designed for him upon each appearance. Co-hosting the second show that evening was Griffin Newman, who recently gained success on Amazon Prime’s new series, The Tick. Newman not only was spectacular in entertaining the audience throughout the show, but he also spent much time discussing his Muppet fandom and his earliest experiences with The Muppets in general. Newman also shared a fun piece of trivia about himself to prove his Muppet fandom. In high school, Griffin would spend much time collecting the Palisades Muppet figures, and often, would spend much time on the Palisades online forums, to the point where he would make such an influence that the now-defunct Palisades company would give him a mention on the Muppets’ “Pigs in Space” action figure set. Upon hearing Griffin discuss his love for the Muppet Palisades figures, it was clear that Griffin was more than just a casual fan. One of us! One of us!
Among the performers that evening were Muppet performers Stephanie D’Abruzzo (Sesame Street’s Prairie Dawn) and Jennifer Barnhart (Sesame Street’s Zoe) and Rick Lyon, who has worked with The Muppets on several projects including Muppet-Vision 3D and many Sesame Street projects. In addition, the show had performances by Nik Walker (Hamilton) Natalie Walker (Cabaret) Ari Wilford (Once) Ashley Perez Flanagan (The Great Comet) Noel Carey and Julia Mattison (Brooklyn Sound) and Monet Sabel (Sweeney Todd).
The show itself mainly focused on classic Muppet music, centering around music from Jim Henson’s direct work, with the exception of the Academy Award-winning song, Man or Muppet from the 2011 film, The Muppets. Among the song choices were everything from The Muppets to Sesame Street, to Fraggle Rock and even Emmet Otter’s Jug Band Christmas. Behind the musical selection was those chosen by the show’s musical director, Ben Caplan, who we managed to catch up to discuss the song choices for the show. “Of course, there’s such so much classic material, that we felt that focusing upon that era would truly showcase just how much relevance The Muppets have had among pop culture”. Caplan has been a Muppet fan since first growing up with Sesame Street, which made this show a perfect fit for him. “The thing about the music of the Muppets is that their songs are so beautifully arranged, and they’ve inspired such a phenomenal legacy, and their music well illustrates that.
Songs included that night began with The Muppet Show Theme/Can You Picture That? performed by the band and Julia Mattison. Later, Natalie Walker took to the stage to perform I’m Gonna Always Love You from The Muppets Take Manhattan in truly spectacular fashion. Afterward, Monet Sabel’s performance of ‘Barbeque’, a song from the Henson classic, Emmet Otter’s Jug Band Christmas. Stephanie D’Abruzzo took the stage next and introduced the song from what she believes is the greatest Muppet movie ever made: The Great Muppet Caper. The song Stephanie performed is the Oscar-nominated The First Time It Happens to spectacular results. Somehow, Stephanie took an already impressive song and invigorated it in new ways with an incredible new performance.
Elsewhere, Hamilton’s Nik Walker wonderfully performed Sesame Street’s “It Feels Good When You Sing a Song”, followed by a hilarious duet of Movin’ Right Along by Noel Carey and Julia Mattison. On the more obscure side of things was a jaw-dropping performance of “Dixie Wailin” by Ari Wilford and “Sail Away/Bring Back the Wonder” by Ashley Perez Flanagan, both songs from Fraggle Rock. These two truly spotlighted how beautiful these songs are and really invigorated a long-forgotten arrangement from the show.
Jennifer Barnhart then performed an absolutely stunning rendition of the already mesmerizing song, When the River Meets the Sea from Emmet Otter’s Jug Band Christmas. Jennifer has a history with both Henson and Broadway, and her incredible performance of this song did a wonderful job at bringing out the beauty of Paul Williams’ spectacular work. Next, Rick Lyon debuted a replica puppet of Gonzo the Great to perform ‘I’m Going to Go Back There Someday’ from The Muppet Movie. Gonzo himself is probably somewhere in Hollywood, but he’d certainly be interested to hear that there’s a ‘puppet’ that looks just like him out in New York. The final two acts include a performance of the Academy Award-winning ‘Man or Muppet’ from the 2011 film, The Muppets, and a closing performance of Rainbow Connection that featured the entire cast.
Ultimately, 54 Celebrates the Muppets created a wonderful once-in-a-lifetime experience that was bound to delight anyone who has ever been touched by the works of Jim Henson. Combined with brilliant performances and artistry, this show brought the music and spirit of the Muppets to life and we couldn’t be more happy by the treatment. It’s no The Muppets at the Hollywood Bowl, but Muppet fans local to the area should be delighted to see this beautiful celebration of the works of Jim Henson. We’re thrilled to bring you some of the musical highlights of this show found below.