From RNZ Music, 9:49 am today
As band leader, MC, stand-up comedian and presenter, hometown hero Bret McKenzie was definitely a hit in the Jim Henson Retrospectacle tribute concert.
Whether your Muppet experience dates from the original variety show on early 1980s prime time television, Saturday morning staple Fraggle Rock or the iconic Sesame Street, at least one personal favourite is guaranteed to make an appearance with Bret McKenzie and the NZSO.
The audience of all ages at Wellington’s Michael Fowler Centre erupted with cheers and genuine excitement whenever Kermit, Miss Piggy, Big Bird, The Count, Bert, Ernie and company appeared ‘in the flesh’ - with the muppeteers.
Usually a well-hidden component of the Muppet universe, the expert manipulators behind the felt and fur stars were in plain sight, giving the audience a rare view of their skill.
A projection screen displayed how audiences usually see the Muppets - with muppeteers well out of shot - but my eye was drawn to the stage where the muppets, McKenzie and muppeteers were crammed together.
The gentle familiarity of Kermit, the unrelenting diva demands of Miss Piggy or Ernie’s charming dopiness were so captivating that I forgot the muppeteers’ artfulness was how my furry friends came alive, even though I could clearly see it.
Henson’s vision to create joy and never break the suspension of disbelief really showed its magic.
The music of the Muppet universe is a soundtrack etched in the minds of at least two generations of television viewers. Around me, audience members of all ages heartily sang along to spellbindingly familiar songs.
McKenzie frequently paid tribute to fellow Muppets songwriters and composers, in particular, Chris 'Cazz' Caswell, the original pianist who was also onstage as part of the visiting Muppet entourage.
The only time the show backed away from the heights of 'People in Your Neighbourhood', 'Mahna Mahna', 'Rubber Ducky' and the Theme from Fraggle Rock ('Dance Your Cares Away') was during the archival clips of Henson’s work, which took away from the onstage action.
The Retrospectacle is an ambitious variety show combining the music of Jim Henson’s universe, with the beloved characters from that world accompanied by a very able and agile NZSO and the Supertonic Choir.
It is all these elements that McKenzie, a former Wellington youth orchestra oboe player, anchors for the audience. He is band leader, MC, stand-up comedian and presenter.
He is The Muppets Show’s Scooter and Kermit - in the human form - for the night, only stopping short of putting his hand up to be a muppeteer, though that may be more due to recent injury than a lack of experience.
Props to Kermit for covering McKenzie’s banjo playing during the night’s opening number 'Rainbow Connection'.
In this regard, The Retrospectacle is McKenzie’s homecoming. Turned out in tuxedo and patent leather shoes rather than his customary raggedy jeans and op-shop tee shirt, it is his time to shine as the person in his neighbourhood who can deliver Oscar The Grouch, Animal, Fozzie Bear and the gang to a hometown audience.
After all, as musical supervisor on The Muppets Movie McKenzie penned the Academy Award-winning ‘Man or Muppet’ song helping reboot Henson’s joyful and kind brand of entertainment.
The Retrospectacle is a departure from the stripped back, self-deprecating musical comedy McKenzie became famous for in Flight of The Conchords. So the show is more Muppet than McKenzie, requiring him to evolve from his usual ultra-chilled stage persona into something as magnificent and larger-than-life as the Muppet version of himself (spoiler alert).
This is definitely New Zealand’s first most popular orchestral, Muppet, folk comedy variety show.