“We can’t give the people what they want at the beginning,” Kermit the Frog instructed early on Friday’s Muppets invasion at the Hollywood Bowl. “We have to make them want you.”
He was advising Miss Piggy, his demanding diva of an ex who, not surprisingly, clamored for the spotlight from the get-go in “The Muppets Take the Bowl,” the first of three weekend two-hour extravaganzas at the venue.
Yet Kermit may as well have been addressing the audience that packed the historic bowl. Being a Muppets fan in 2017 is often an emotionally up-and-down affair.
The colorful critters were evicted from their 3-D theater at Anaheim’s Disneyland Resort in 2014. Although a pair of charmingly nostalgic films in 2011 and 2014 appeared to revive the characters for a new generation, a prime-time 2015 ABC sitcom derailed any major Muppets comeback; the show misread the brand and often confused the difference between adult themes and immature content.
And while many a Muppets die-hard is now fully grown — and the Hollywood Bowl wasn’t exactly overrun with little ones on Friday — the Muppets work best when they’re still relatively young at heart. Puns and innuendos? Bring ’em on. Depressed Muppets with a bounty of relationship issues? Hard pass.
So no doubt fans on opening night were plenty hungry for some ol’-fashioned zaniness, and what a joy of a show they received. The revue tapped all that made the Muppets special — a wide-eyed earnestness when it comes to discovering music, goofy multi-layered comedy routines that emphasized merriment over snark, and the staunch belief that happiness, jubilance and pure show-biz liveliness transcend any generational trend.
It’s a shame only that its run was limited and this show isn’t embarking on a national tour. “The Muppets Take the Bowl” was a celebratory affair that actually felt relatively essential. For this was a show in which a shrimp could command control of an orchestra and remix Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony into a fiery Latin dance number, a female pig could lead a spaceship and a blue-furred creature with a crooked nose could offer a brief lesson in individuality.
If the production was not exactly a study in diversity, it certainly was a testament to the power of inclusivity. For all of the Muppets’ reinventions and misadventures over the decades, one constant has generally held true. While Kermit may struggle to keep this easily-distracted crew on-message, the Muppets exist to embrace — to absorb, often with wonderment, everything from bad jokes to magic routines to popular music.
The troupe was accompanied by the always-versatile Hollywood Bowl Orchestra, led by the never-not-affable Thomas Wilkins, and the stage was dressed like an old-fashioned theater. Projection effects puts us in outer space, or on a road trip, and though puppeteers were always visible contorting themselves like acrobats, Muppet personalities are outsized ones, and the hands beneath the fleece soon became essentially invisible.
The show, credited to writers Jim Lewis, Andrew Williams, Kirk Thatcher and Matthew Barnette, brought back some fan-favorite sketches — there was a “Pigs in Space” bit, in which a “2001” monolith essentially became a chatty Amazon Alexa-like device, and a “Muppet Labs” routine showed us the troll-like Muppets lurking in the dark corners of the Internet. Music, as always, was a focal point.
No doubt the “The Muppet Show” throughout its run in the late ’70s served as a sort of musical discovery engine, one where the likes of Paul Simon, Alice Cooper or Johnny Cash were likely to pop in. And while cynics may write off Muppet takes on well-known songs as novelty numbers, house band Dr. Teeth and the Electric Mayhem always approached its renditions with pure adoration.
That was true Friday, when the band brought a summer-of-love spirit to Edwarde Sharpe & the Magnetic Zeros’ “Home,” a take that played up the tune’s hokey sentimentality. Here’s hoping all of us, if only for one brief moment in our lives, can experience the love apparent between band members Floyd Pepper and Janice.
The band — and yes, the band was made up of puppets, but the Bowl did a rather fine job of creating the illusion of realness — segued effortlessly into David Bowie’s “Suffragette City.” If it caught some by surprise that the Muppets didn’t edit out the song’s shouts of “wham-bam-thank-you-ma'am,” the Muppets have long been family-friendly without pandering, and it’s also indicative of how much those behind the Muppets love their music. Everyone, after all, knows you don’t mess with Bowie.
Miss Piggy had her way with Adele’s “Hello,” until the song’s outrageously cartoonish show-tune-like rendition had its way with her, and no Muppets gig would be complete without the communal sway of the Kermit-led “Rainbow Connection.” Here, the frog was joined by Paul Williams (who, along with Kenneth Ascher, wrote the song) and comedian Bobby Moynihan, who served as an unobtrusive host who largely set the Muppets up for their own gags.
There were non-musical highlights as well — parodies such as “Keeping Up With the Crustaceans” and “The Walking Bread.” These brief diversions went beyond their potential one-joke gags, as the latter showed us the Swedish Chef caught in a nightmare scenario where zombie bread (read: moldy bread) caused a personal meltdown.
Even a simple farce can turn into a character study in the right hands. And thus, if there was any connecting thread throughout this variety show, it was this: embrace your eccentricities. As Gonzo said at one point, “It is not OK to be a weirdo. It is amazing!”
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‘The Muppets Take the Bowl’
Where: Hollywood Bowl, 2301 N. Highland Ave., Los Angeles
When: 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday, 7:30 p.m. Sunday
Information: (323) 850-2000, www.hollywoodbowl.com
Follow me on Twitter: @toddmartens