My Take on… The Muppets Take The O2

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Kieran Moore – You know how it feels when something so celebrational and Muppetational happens that you don’t know quite how to process it? That’s kind of how I feel today. Which means if I don’t find some way to write about The Muppets Take The O2 this could be a real short review…

In an effort to turn my non-sequitur thoughts into something a little more sequitur, I’m going to group them into categories so that this all hopefully makes sense! Let’s give it a go…

Background
Most of you guys know this bit, but after a hugely successful run last year at The Hollywood Bowl the Muppets decided to take their live stage show over to Europe. Booking in three days at London’s O2 Arena, The Muppet Show was coming home – Elstree Studios where the show was taped is just 36 miles away.

Through a mixture of good luck, begging and a landmark birthday I was able to bag tickets for all three shows. I’m so glad I did. On the first night I met up with a Muppet friend (Hey Rob!) and had a seat about 20 rows back. The following day I was joined by my niece (13) and Nephew (11). We decided to dress up as Kermit, Fozzie and Gonzo from The Great Muppet Caper (because why not?) I honestly think I let the side down a little, but we got awesome reactions from those in the know. For the matinee show we were seated right at the back and for the final evening performance we had amazing seats 4 rows from the front! I honestly consider buying those tickets one of the best decisions I’ve made in my life. Anyway, let’s get on with the interesting stuff!

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The Show
Probably the best part of this whole experience for me was just how much this felt like watching The Muppet Show. I’ve often wished I was in the audience to see Gonzo’s daredevil lunacy or Fozzie’s comedy bits. Now I don’t have to. I’ve been there and done it and it was marvellous. But I’m getting ahead of myself…

There were backstage shenanigans, a frog barely keeping the show together, a guest star, a UK spot and just about everything you need for an authentic Muppet experience. From the moment Kermit appeared from inside a letter “O” to Zoot’s final sax note, this was as close as anyone will get to being in the Muppet theatre. It even eclipsed the Disney theme park show for immersion – not an easy feat in a massive arena.

I have it on good authority that about 30% of the show was different to the Hollywood version so here is a quick rundown of the full programme for all you completists out there:

ACT 1
A Few Words from Sam Eagle
The Opening Theme
At the Curtains with Kermit
A Moving Medley – Moving Right Along/I’ve Been Everywhere/On the Road Again
Pigs in Space
Miss Piggy Preview
Happy Feet
A Salute to England
Wayne and Wanda – Send in the Clowns
Croak-A-Pella
Muppstream: Sneak Preview
Dr. Teeth and the Electric Mayhem – Can You Picture That?, Ho Hey, Suffragette City

ACT 2
Bohemian Rhapsody
The Boo Danube
Muppet Labs
Fozzie Bear World Record/The World’s Funniest Joke
KØØKÏNG with The Swedish Chef
Wayne And Wanda – Sitting on the Dock of the Bay
Miss Piggy Behind the Scenes
A World of Delusion with Gonzo
Mahna Mahna
Miss Piggy – Hello
Rainbow Connection/Magic Store
ENCORE: With A Little Help from My Friends

(Note from the editor – Click here to watch clips from the vast majority of the show)

The whole show took over 2 hours.

Except for The Electric Mayhem, all the big Muppet stars get their moments in the second half in extended slots. That (along with the encore) made the second act feel shorter, but I have no clue if that’s true.

Britishness
There were some great nods to the fact that this show was in the UK. Sam’s opening speech alluded to Donald Trump’s visit to our shores (which coincided perfectly) and there was a brief moment where England’s performance in the World Cup was mentioned which featured a wonderful, semi-improvised turn from Brit performer Mike Quinn as a football.

o2 doctor

Pigs in Space was a wonderful mash up with Doctor Who. We already knew The Doctor is a fan of the Muppets, so can we now officially say they are both canon with each other? (Did somebody say… never mind) Whoever wrote that sketch is clearly a fan of the show as it was full of perfect in-jokes.

The other big “British” sketch was the “Salute to England” in which Charles Dance/Anthony Head tried in vain to read “I Wondered Lonely as a Cloud” while Pepe did his best to prevent the show from becoming “boring”. This skit was brilliant and a highlight of the whole show to just about anyone I’ve asked.

A lot of the artwork onscreen – particularly during The Electric Mayhem’s set featured British landmarks. As a side note, the artwork was incredible. I’ll buy one of every piece of merchandise they want to put it on.

Croak-A-Pella performed London’s Calling, Rowlf sang Maybe it’s Because I’m a Londoner (in what felt just like a UK spot from The Muppet Show) and UK shows were featured in the Muppstream previews. The stereotypical British Bobbies (cops) were also featured a couple of times. Finally, Statler and Waldorf made several mentions of the show’s location, including one about how time differences meant they’d be wide awake for the show! They promptly fell asleep two seconds later.

electric mayhem

Songs
I can’t say enough good things about the music in this show. Not a beat was missed, not a note was out of place. It was incredible. I swear you’ve never really been to a rock show until you’ve seen The Electric Mayhem. Every single moment of their act was incredible. Each of the main singers got a track where they could shine (and boy did they!) Animal, Zoot and Lips all got featured moments too.

Kermit’s solo tracks were just as amazing as they should be. Happy Feet was fun and joyous with incredible puppetry and Rainbow Connection was every bit as emotional as you’d expect. Seeing the frog sing that song live will linger for a very long time.

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Mahna Mahna was fun but truncated from the Hollywood version to simply feature a guest star who took over when Mahna Mahna went missing. It’s astounding the reaction that song gets. I can see why it was placed towards the end of the show.

Any moment Rowlf sang was wonderful. His version of I’ve Been Everywhere featured London tube stations instead of Californian towns and got a huge cheer from the crowd.

piggy hello

The last word, however, has to go to Miss Piggy. Her version of Hello by Adele was a real tearjerker – for her. For those who don’t know the sketch (which was largely the same as the Hollywood Bowl version), Piggy finds out the hard way the importance of rehearsal as she’s tossed around the stage by her backing dancers. I’ve been critical of this sketch in the past as I thought Piggy looked like a ragdoll through parts of it, but it plays much better in person. I still can’t help but wish we’d got a full version of the slower, more emotional intro part…

Since it’s what I’m known for on The Muppet Mindset, here are my top 10 musical moments…

10 – Ho Hey
9 – Maybe It’s Because I’m a Londoner
8 – Hello
7 – Happy Feet
6 – A Moving Medley
5 – Suffragette City
4 – Can You Picture That?
3 – With A Little Help from My Friends
2 – Rainbow Connection
1 – The Magic Store

The Magic Store beats out Rainbow connection by being a joyous, triumphant celebration of success over adversity – just what the Muppets are known for.

Just missing out is Bohemian Rhapsody which was fantastic to see live. I’m sure most people would have it in their top 10, but I have to call it as I see it.

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Muppets
I must give a quick shout out to certain Muppets for their contribution to the show. In the more obscure corner, there were several hilarious moments from Julianne Buescher as a nameless hair.

Beauregard was able to get some great jokes in. Wayne sounded so like Richard Hunt I wondered if there was a tape recorder strapped to David Rudman. Pepe and The Swedish Chef shone in their sketches and Rowlf was perfect every time he appeared. Rizzo appeared very, very briefly in a silent cameo onscreen during Pigs in Space.

sweetums scooter bobby

I can’t write about Muppets without mentioning Scooter though. His role as gofer has been fully promoted to stage manager now and he really suits the role. His geeky side was still present, but he has that snarky attitude that Richard Hunt gave him in The Muppet Show back. I’m happy to see him feature so prominently and so in character.

bobby kermit

Guest Stars
Bobby Moynihan was once again the main guest star of the show. This wasn’t mentioned in any publicity because, quite frankly, Bobby is not known here in the UK at all. When I saw his name in the programme I actually felt a little annoyed because I figured they hadn’t bothered to change it for the UK shows. He was a lot of fun and held the show together well. Much bigger news here in the UK were names like Kylie Minogue, David Tennant, Peter Davison and Charles Dance.

Other than Bobby, it was a completely different roster of guests for each day’s shows. Real life in-laws David Tennant and Peter Davison shared the role of The Doctor with there being very little between them. I would say the skit felt like it was written more for David than Peter though.

Charles Dance and Anthony Head were interrupted by Pepe. I’d say Anthony Head brought just the right amount of pantomime to his role of straight man and consequently felt like he had a better connection with the Muppets. He wins this one on points.

Jim Hawkins himself, Kevin Bishop cooked with The Swedish Chef on Friday while on Saturday Adam Hills donned the “Bork Stops Here” apron. Both have appeared with the Muppets before, but I’d say Adam was the better of the two. You could see his genuine thrill at being onstage with the Muppets and he adlibbed and improvised brilliantly.

On Friday Kylie sang Mahna Mahna, duetted with Kermit on Rainbow Connection and generally lit up the stage, clearly having a blast. On Saturday afternoon STEPS filled her role on Mahna Mahna (in what seemed a shorter version) and didn’t perform the Rainbow Connection duet. This was no great loss to entertainment. By Saturday night they had disappeared completely with Bobby filling in for them in Mahna Mahna. I don’t begrudge STEPS the chance to perform with Muppets, but if ever the phrase “money just for showing up” was true…

At first glance the guest list for Friday looked much better. In the end, I think it was a fairly even split so that was a welcome surprise.

performers

Muppet Performers
The cast list reads like a who’s who of the puppeteer world. There are 19 additional performers listed in the guide. I can’t mention them all here but will briefly shout out to Tyler Bunch who appeared as Gonzo’s masseuse (Did you know Gonzo’s safe word is Liechtenstein?) and Julianne Buescher who was brilliant in a variety of very funny roles. If they ever cast a seventh member of the core group I hope it’s her.

Walter didn’t appear much, but Peter Linz showed why he might be about to steal the Recast King crown from Matt Vogel. As Robin, Statler and Link he was solid the whole way through. In fact, I’d say his Robin is better than Matt’s and Lips was wonderfully animated.

David Rudman was excellent at Scooter (see above). This very website knows just how good David can be in a quick-thinking interview situation. He showed his improv chops once again as Scooter interacted with all and sundry. His brief conversation with Bobo was a crowd pleaser every time. David was also excellent as Janice during her numbers. He’s is a definite contender for show MVP.

Much of the second half belonged to Eric Jacobson as Fozzie and Miss Piggy got their moments to shine. The puppetry during Piggy’s song really was a thing of beauty. He must have to be so switched on to accomplish a routine such as that. This guy is seriously underrated.

rowlf

Bill Barretta is my new spirit animal. Being able to watch him up close was a real thrill. It’s often said that when you meet a Muppet you forget about the performer underneath, but I couldn’t take my eyes off Bill when he was performing as Rowlf. Anyone who says these guys are just voice artists should watch them live. Every word, intonation and action that came from Rowlf was right there in Bill also.

Much has been made of Matt Vogel’s recast so I won’t dwell on it, but if this show doesn’t stop people worrying over the future of Kermit nothing will. Just as with Bill, you can see Matt acting out every moment of Kermit’s dialog. He was funny, heart-warming and excellent throughout. This is a guy who knows his stuff.

gonzo dave

And last, but certainly not least is Dave Goelz. If ever a man invoked the true spirit of the Muppets, it’s this guy. He was hilarious as both Gonzo and Bunsen. To see this master at work was incredibly humbling. He also got the best line of the night where Gonzo said it wasn’t ok to be different – it was awesome! That got a huge cheer each time it was said.

Other Stuff
I was lucky enough to catch up with show writer and director Kirk Thatcher while I was there. He was clearly very busy on the show but was graciously spending as much time with fans as possible. I’ve been lucky enough to meet with him before, so I didn’t want to encroach and kept my interaction brief. One thing was obvious – he was having a blast and doing something he loved. I hope he gets to do it all again.

I’ve never been part of the bring back The Muppet Show brigade. I want them to evolve and renew. I can’t bear the idea of them becoming a nostalgia brand. BUT this show proved that with the right people an updated version of The Muppet Show could be a huge hit. Random jokes, backstage mayhem, zany acts, heartfelt moments, character camaraderie, guest stars having a blast – it was all there and it was perfect. Give these guys a TV special Disney and I guarantee you’ll get an excellent show AND a huge audience.

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Before the show, much was made of putting it in the O2. I can see the arguments for and against. It is a huge venue. Having watched the show from the very front and very back of the arena I can honestly say it was a vastly different experience depending on where you were seated. At the front you can marvel at the puppetry and see every fuzzy flock. At the back you are essentially watching a lot of the show on the big screens. That’s fine and it was good to see how the puppet performances translated to film, but I must admit feeling a twinge of sadness for those who wouldn’t get to experience the thrill of being up close. The show was entertaining from every seat in the house, but I can’t say I’d be sad if they chose another venue next time. (There’d better be a next time.)

If this show does ever come anywhere near you, you HAVE to go see it. I am unapologetic in how gushing I am over this show. As a lifelong Muppet fan who dreamed of this moment for over 30 years I’ll admit I might be biased – certainly there will be more mixed reviews out there (though I haven’t seen any yet). But even if I take off my Kermit-colored glasses I still can’t think of a show I’d rush back to see more. There was spectacle, there was fantasy, there was derring-do and stuff like you would never see. But you know what? Above all that; above the slick performances, funny sketches, rousing songs and cute Muppet bits is how this show made me feel and what it means to me now. To be able to share this magical experience with my family is truly the most amazing thing that happened all weekend (it even tops Gonzo taking us back in time). The Muppets are all about togetherness and celebrating each other and that’s what Kermit, Miss Piggy, Gonzo, Fozzie, Matt, Bill, Dave, Kirk and all the other bears and chickens and things did for thousands of people last weekend in London.

I can’t thank them enough.

kieran niece nephew

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