Prepare to reconnect with your inner child through puppetry this holiday season with Jim Henson's Emmet Otter's Jug-Band Christmas. Puppets will play onstage Nov. 15-Dec. 31 at the historic Fine Arts Building, 410 South Michigan Ave., after a previous, successful run in New York City.
Humans will once again be portraying several of the main characters in this theatrical version of Henson's television special, which is in turn based on a book. Out and proud performer Andy Mientus plays the lead Emmet Otter and American Reject's Kathleen Monteleone becomes Ma to bring Henson's vision back to life.
After an introduction to the colorful characters living in Frogtown Hollow, a dynamic otter duo hear a call to compete in a talent contest to raise funds for the holidays while performing several songs from Academy Award-winning songwriter Paul Williams. This hairy and heartwarming tale runs for 75 minutes and is directed by Tony Award winner Christopher Gatteli.
While studying musical theater in college, Mientus was whisked away to be on Spring Awakening's first national tour and later made his Broadway debut in the 2014 revival of Les Miserables as Marius Pontmercy.
His television career began with NBC's Smash and he later made history as the first gay supervillain on the CW series The Flash.
He now returns to his roots with this otter-ly delightful musical and met up for a brief interview at Navy Pier during a Chicago Live! event recently to talk about it.
Windy City Times: Hi, Andy. Start off with your background…
Andy Mientus: I grew up in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, where I fell in love with theater. I went to school at the University of Michigan for musical theater. In my junior year, I was cast in the first national tour of Spring Awakening, which pulled me out of school and began my career.
Since then I have been mostly New York-based and have been very lucky to bounce around between stage and television. I have worked in London and regionally. I have been everywhere and this is my next adventure.
WCT: Do you like traveling?
AM: I do. Traveling keeps one healthy and allows the creation of something in another part of the world on someone else's dime, which is a unique privilege.
WCT: Have you been to Chicago before now?
AM: Spring Awakening played here for about three weeks, and then I went to Lollapalooza one time here when I was younger. This will be the longest I have been in the city. I love Chicago and look forward to visiting all the resident theaters while I am here if my schedule permits.
WCT: How do you identify?
AM: I go by he/him pronouns and identify as bisexual. It is Bisexual Awareness Week by the way! I have a partner and I am married.
WCT: How did you find the Emmet Otter project?
AM: It just came across my desk and was sent by Christopher Gattelli. I had been a fan of his work over the years, but we had never crossed paths. There was a joke at one time in the industry, "Where did you go to schoolSpring Awakening or Newsies?" I went to Spring Awakenings so I didn't meet Christopher back then [Gattelli was choreographer for the musical Newsies].
At first, I was confused, but flattered, as to why he thought of me for this show. I hadn't seen it, to be honest, but I was a big fan of The Muppet Movie, so I knew Paul Williams' music. I gave it a look and was so touched, especially because the puppets resembled my dog.
WCT: What is your dog's name?
AM: Hudson and he is a shepherd terrier mix.
WCT: Cute. What else attracted you to the script?
AM: I have done lots of dark and serious theater, but I am also a writer with a concentration on younger readers. Engaging families and younger audiences is important. It is how to build an audience that will want to see more challenging shows.
I also love the idea of doing a show around the holidays. This show in particular has a simple story and is appropriate for the whole family, but it does not have simple stagecraft. It is very high level and theatrically dazzling. The team has made Jim Henson's creatures come to life onstage and will keep surprising the audience constantly along the way.
WCT: These characters seem fully developed don't they?
AM: Yes. Kathleen Monteleone and I are new to this family, but we have already had talks with Chris Gattelli about it. The story is about whether or not Emmet will put a hole in the washtub to win a contest to get a Christmas present for his Ma. This has to be played with the same stakes as everything else. To these characters the situation is everything.
These folks feel the pressure of the holidays coming up, and it is hard. How can they get presents for loved ones when there is not enough money? This is really a story about class and money.
They are also grieving Pa, who has passed away prior to the events in the show. They are trying to figure out the holidays after that loss. At the core of this, even though it is told in a bright, colorful and fun way, there is a lot to play with here. The puppets are quite fun, even to adults. The puppeteers are professionals, not only in operating the creatures, but being the puppets. They can ad-lib. Even at this Navy Pier performance, they gave off-the-cuff improvisations. It was really hard not to crack up because they are very funny. They know how to thread that needle perfectly. They can tell a joke that is funny to everyone and not alienate a child.
WCT: For the original television special Henson was experimenting with water features. Is water a part of the show?
AM: It is set in a town called Waterville. We accomplish the idea of water in various ways and I will let audiences be surprised by what the creators come up with.
WCT: That fox is very sassy in the show.
AM: She represents the upper class in the town and people who look down on Emmet.
WCT: How do you relate to the character of Emmet?
AM: Just like Emmet, I lost my father when I was very young. The first few years after that, grief would creep up on me, especially during the holidays and even now sometimes.
My mom worked so hard during those early years to honor our traditions while not bringing up something too sad or painful. It was a time to create new traditions and figure out who we were as a family without my father's presence. I relate to Emmet in many ways and find the story moving.
WCT: This year marks a new tradition for you to spend the holidays in Chicago for the first time.
AM: Yes, I will be here for Halloween, which is my favorite holiday, my birthday and even New Year's Eve. If I don't find a costume, at least I will be dressing up as an otter!
WCT: What is your favorite musical?
AM: Rent, which I grew up with, was my first, real entrance into musical theater.
WCT: What is your favorite Christmas song?
AM: "Hard Candy Christmas."
WCT: Dolly Parton!
AM: It was made famous by Dolly Parton but written for a musical called The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas, so it straddles both of my worlds.
WCT: Becky Ann Baker, who played the original Ruby Rae on Broadway, did the production at Western Kentucky University when I was studying there.
AM: She's a legend!
WCT: My college roommate makes a living at comic conventions because of playing a villain on a WB television show. Do you make appearances at those fan expos because of being on The Flash?
AM: Yes, and I have done more of them as a writer than as an actor. The fans are the same and often crossoverwhich my publisher loves.
WCT: How did it feel making history by playing the first openly gay supervillain Pied Piper on the CW series The Flash?
AM: It was amazing. Maybe things are different with the culture wars now, but when we debuted the character on the show, I received tons of support and excitement. I didn't see any negative feedback.
It helped that the character had been out in the comics and this wasn't a change for the television show to be more inclusive, although I welcome that. This was something the fans had known for a long time.
When I got the script I was surprised how gay the humor was. It wasn't a palatable hero that just happens to like boys but is like everyone else. This character was specifically queer and would say things my friends would say or barbs we would throw at each other. He was written very well.
WCT: Thanks to gay producer Greg Berlanti.
AM: Yes, he is a legend.
WCT: What are your plans after Emmet?
AM: I will be doing laundry after my adventure on the road! I hope the strike ends soon. I am very lucky to have gotten back into theater this year. Earlier in the summer I did a production of Tick, Tick… Boom!, which was my first time back onstage since 2019. I have missed it a lot and I am so glad to be here.
If the strike comes to an agreeable end, I can go back to television or otherwise, I will pursue more stage work such as this.
WCT: Is there one musical you would like to do but still haven't?
AM: That is a great question. I would really like to do Cabaret. People think I would want to be The Emcee, but instead, I want to play Clifford Bradshaw. I am a big Christopher Isherwood fan and Cliff is Isherwood in the play. He is one of the few bisexual characters in musical theater canon. The whole story is through his eyes and he comes to realize he's been blind, [letting] some terrible things pass by him, just from the privilege he carries with him. It is a fascinating part, so that is why I would want to play him.
WCT: Your Smash friend Megan Hilty is opening the musical version of The Devil Wears Prada next year in Chicago. What are your thoughts on that?
AM: I am so bummed I will miss it. She is obviously a good friend, and I can't wait to see her and Jennifer Simard do that. Everyone after seeing Jim Henson's Emmet Otter's Jug-Band Christmas needs to go get tickets for that show, which is also with Chris Gatteli. We are in the same family and it is our sister show!
There ain't holes in this washtub thanks to Emmet and the gang. Tickets for this Jim Henson celebration start at $43 and can be found at fineartsbuilding.com/studebaker/ or by calling 312-753-3210.