Life’s A Happy Song in New Zealand: The Jim Henson Retrospectacle Live in Concert Recap

Unfortunately photos and video were banned at this event, so we apologize for the lack of appropriate visuals.

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Abigail Maughan – Last Saturday, April 28th, an audience bedecked with Muppet shirts, toys, and costumes filed their way into the Michael Fowler Centre in Wellington, New Zealand for the afternoon show. The Jim Henson Retrospectacle Live In Concert was about to start, and it was a completely full house.

The venue was small enough that there didn’t seem to really be any bad seats, and I say this having been seated in the back half of the balcony. The New Zealand Symphony Orchestra and conductor Hamish McKeich circled around the back two-thirds of the stage, leaving the front third for Chris Caswell (who got an epic featured piano solo later), his grand piano, and the stars of the evening. A small choir were elevated behind the orchestra.

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Bret McKenzie, Kermit the Frog, and their banjos opened the show with a soft and sweet rendition of “Rainbow Connection.” Bret had broken his hand and admitted to faking his banjo-playing, but thanked Kermit for keeping it together with his. Bret said that he’d wanted this concert to happen for eight years now. Kermit explained that he actually left for this concert eight years ago, and only just barely got out of quarantine.

Master of ceremonies Bret McKenzie, a very important Muppet-person in his own right, exuded a very nonchalant, ad-libbed tone and all the Muppets followed suit. The show was written by Craig Shemin and Bret McKenzie, as I learned the next day at the Celebrating Jim Henson panel. They delivered standard Muppet fare and made sure that every character and performer got a substantial spotlight. Being largely a celebration of the classics, there were few surprises, but it was certainly satisfying.

This show followed in the footsteps of the Hollywood Bowl by leaving the puppeteers completely exposed. Throughout the entire concert, the audience could see Matt Vogel, Peter Linz, Carmen Osbahr, Eric Jacobson, and Karen Prell rolling around the stage on their carts, manipulating their personal characters, and all the right hands and banjo-playing rods in between. There were two giant video screens on either side of the stage displaying what the camera normally sees. We all know that the Muppet performers are the most talented individuals on the face of the earth, and I was thrilled that the directors of the show made the decision to let the audience see how they work.

As Kermit and Bret began to discuss the life and influence of Jim Henson, a penguin played by Carmen Osbahr interrupted to inform Kermit of backstage disaster. Kermit took off—they had a Great Muppet Caper-esque luggage situation on their hands—and Frankie the penguin filled in for Kermit. She was very offended when Bret told her the audience couldn’t understand her quacking. We then saw a brief film montage of Jim Henson’s earliest work from Sam and Friends, the Wilkins Coffee commercials, and the like.

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Sesame Street

The Sesame Street segment began, with Grover and the choir singing the show’s theme song. Grover was enthusiastic to help with the show; Bret said he could do that by waiting backstage. Ernie and Bert popped in to sing “Rubber Duckie” and to banter. Classic Ernie tomfoolery ensued as he invited Bert to take a verse, then micromanaged his every attempt to do so, telling Bert he’s coming in too early with the music, or too late, or with the emphasis on the wrong word. After the song, Bret asked if they prefer to be called Bert and Ernie, or Ernie and Bert, and they responded that they actually prefer Flight of the Pigeons. They pointed out that “Bert” has the same letters as “Bret,” and that “Ernie” has the same letters as “Jermaine”—or most of them, anyway.

Rosita took a turn in the spotlight, walking Bret and the audience through saying her full name in Spanish. Big Bird entered (to which the audience went completely, notably nuts, by the way), and expressed his confusion that Bret was not a literal kiwi as he’d been led to believe.  Big Bird revealed that he’s part kiwi himself on his father’s side. Big Bird shouting “Kia ora!” into the audience and the audience reciprocating led to “Sing After Me,” the first of many numbers to encourage participation from the audience.

A highlight of the show was the “Song of the Count,” as performed by, well, guess who. Matt Vogel just commanded that stage, stomping the Count all around. Other puppeteers maneuvered bats on sticks to hover all around the Count and a violin soloist. The audience got super into this particular number, clapping and whooping along through all the drastic tempo changes.

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After complimenting the audience on their clapping ability, Bret explained that Jim Henson didn’t do everything he did by himself, and had a large team through it all, prompting a performance of “People in Your Neighborhood.” Along with Bret himself representing a composer, the people in this neighborhood included two argumentative Anything Muppets, a writer and a director, played by Peter Linz and Karen Prell, respectively. Bret suggested they also need a puppeteer, to their confusion, and Grover showed up to help, with his own hand puppet. Grover broke the fourth wall by looking down at Eric Jacobson, who ordered Grover to “just sing.”

To close off the Sesame Street portion of the evening, Rosita led the audience in “Sing,” and was eventually joined by the rest of the Sesame cast. I sang along, the folks sitting right next to me sang along, and it sounded like the whole room was singing along. Who should pop up from behind the piano after this but Oscar the Grouch, lamenting the end of the heavenly twenty-hour flight and three hours in customs. He said that if he wanted to hear nonstop happy singing, he would have just stayed home.

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Fraggle Rock and The Dark Crystal

Red Fraggle sprang up at the bottom corner of the stage, explaining that she had heard the music and followed it into Outer Space, marveling that the Michael Fowler Centre looked big enough to fit a Gorg. Bret sat down beside her to explain what a concert is, and pointed out a child in the front row who looked apprehensive at being in such close proximity to a Fraggle.

They sang “Follow Me,” Bret the first verse and Red the second. Red summarized Fraggle Rock for the audience, calling back to Travelling Matt in the show’s first episode—“It’s a rock, and Fraggles live there!” She explained the lives of the Fraggles, the Doozers, and the Gorgs, and how they used to think each other weird, but now they’ve all come together and understand each other, and how important that is.

Red and Bret both hopped onto the stage to sing the Fraggle Rock theme song. Bret requested audience participation with the theme song’s iconic double-clap. You don’t need to tell me twice, Bret. *clap clap*

The NZSO showed their prowess in this section, with the gentle nostalgia of “Follow Me” followed immediately by the sheer power of the theme song, with a baseline you could feel in your bones. Red left, and the orchestra played a suite of the soundtrack of The Dark Crystal, set to a montage of the film on the big screens.

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The Muppets

The choir sang the Muppet Show theme song, and Kermit entered the stage again, arms flailing, to usher in the final segment of the show that belonged to the Muppet Show Muppets. The front row was also invited to try out the flail.

Naturally, this section gave us some classic Muppet standards. “Movin’ Right Along,” with Fozzie and Kermit, was spurred when Fozzie complained that the show was lacking pizazz. Bret led “Mahna Mahna,” running into the audience holding his microphone up for people to say “mahna mahna” as the Snowths remain doomed to look on in dismay. Kermit sat on a stool and sang “Bein’ Green,” a song he observed that “a lot of people relate to, no matter what color they are.” (This Kermit puppet had legs, and the one used for the rest of the show did not.)

In between the songs, we got vignettes from Bret and some beloved secondary Muppet mainstays. Sam the Eagle blustered his way onstage and promptly shut down the audience’s attempt to applaud for him. He started dishing out blame to Bret, the conductor, and the audience for the fact that this Muppet nonsense is no longer contained in America. Lew Zealand announced that he is suing New Zealand for stealing his name, but backed down when Bret explained that the country was using the name a few hundred years before he started to. Animal was given a lesson in the percussion instruments of the orchestra, waited as the orchestra members put on hard hats (“Percussion precaution!”), and hit the giant gong on the wall, the force of which made him pass out.

Fozzie stepped in for a routine, the orchestra providing his signature fanfare. He started telling what he promised were “New Zealand jokes”… but were his standard “fly in my soup” type jokes, with New Zealand locations tacked onto the beginning. Bret called him out for simply recycling his normal material, and Fozzie rose to Bret’s challenge by proceeding to tell many sheep puns.

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Walter was a star of this portion of the show, with his own running gag delivering Miss Piggy’s list of demands and complaints to the stage—namely, that she’s jealous of Bret’s Oscar and refuses to share the stage with “that scruffy Kiwi nincompoop.” And speaking of Bret McKenzie’s Oscar, it’s time for another major highlight of the concert. When it came time to sing “Man or Muppet,” Bret’s broken hand had robbed him of his keyboard-playing ability. But not to worry, Walter recruited a taciturn Muppet version of Bret McKenzie (Matt Vogel) to help with that. These three, plus a member of the choir being the human version of Walter, sang a particularly rousing “Man or Muppet.” The Muppet Bret earned some of the biggest laughs of the night later when he was tasked with entertaining the audience while the human Bret went backstage.

Piggy was cajoled onstage after Bret showered her with praise and admitted that he never could have won his Oscar without her. She graced the audience with a truncated version of “Never Before, Never Again.” When asked why she sang only the first verse and coda, she justified to Bret and Kermit that less time spent performing leaves more time for audience adoration. Kermit slyly agreed that yes, he has also learned that audiences love Piggy more the less they hear from her; Piggy appreciated his support.

In what was perhaps my favorite joke of the night, Bret asked Kermit what song they should sing to close the show. Kermit’s suggestion: “…How about the one we rehearsed?” Bret and Kermit were joined by Piggy and Walter to sing “Life’s a Happy Song” and strongly evoke the ending of the 2011 movie. Near the ending, Bret and the Muppets sang the “everything is great, everything is grand” part concurrently with the choir singing the “I’ve got everything that I need” part. It sounded very, very cool, although there was still little support for the concept of life being a fillet of fish.

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The screens played a montage of behind-the-scenes footage of Jim Henson himself, and many of the characters he performed (getting rather obscure with Bugsy Them from Dog City), all set to the Country Trio singing “You Don’t Mess Around With Jim” on the Dick Cavett Show. The entire Muppet cast sang “Rainbow Connection” one last time, concluding with musically reminding us that life is like a movie and that we should write our own ending.

Bret credited each of the Muppet performers by name and character and they each joined him onstage with a puppet, standing up at his level. This lead to a truly epic moment where Big Bird, Kermit the Frog, Rosita, Red Fraggle, and Miss Piggy were all onstage at the same time, which I was under the impression legally could not happen. They concluded with one last song that I, not being from New Zealand, did not know. Bret said “you all know it,” and all the New Zealanders around us stood up and enthusiastically sang along, to this upbeat song with lyrics I could not make out.

And that was the Jim Henson Retrospectacle concert. It was a worthy celebration of Jim Henson and his team, honoring everything that their actions and influences have given the world for years. I had a great time, and it sure felt like everyone around me did too.

Near the end of the show, Kermit expressed to the audience that he hoped everyone would leave feeling inspired to go out into the world and follow their dreams. We’ve all heard that sentiment before, but it really meant something after the hour and a half that we had just watched. It took the contributions of lot of hardworking people, from today and from decades ago, to make this show exist the way it did. This show was proof what people can do with their dreams, and what Jim and his team, the old members and the new, did with theirs. When Kermit the Frog says it right in front of you after all that, you believe it.

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