Friday, April 4, 2014

The Muppets Take Manhattan


Despite a certain mismatch between audience and subject matter, my When a Man Loves a Woman concert was a success. Those darling gay boys took great delight in making me feel welcome in their society. When I told them I had been feeling a bit under the weather and that I had been self medicating with my new Special K, they pressed large quantities of Vitamin E on me as well and I soon was feeling much, much better.

The next night, there was a large White Party dance on the deck of the ship under the moon. Fortunately, I had brought my little ermine cocktail frock, the one with the sequins and rhinestones on the bodice, so I fit right in. With a little more K and E, I was soon tapping away in the middle of that crush of bodies. The night air and the music had some sort of effect on my mind as I started to have some startling hallucinations and then things sort of go blank, although I do recall something about water skiing behind the ship...

My hallucinations, involving a number of unlikely animals dressed in white formal wear, reminded me a great deal of The Muppets Take Manhattan, a film I caught on cable a week or so ago. I had seen it originally in the late 1980s when I was doing research for an abortive stage adaptation of Miss Piggy's Guide to Life, and remembered it as charming; so I settled in for another viewing.

In this, the third feature film outing of the Muppets, Kermit, Piggy and the gang, start out as graduating college seniors who put together a fabulous musical, Manhattan Melodies which wows the crowd at their quaint, but tasteful, New England campus. Their success in the provinces convinces them that they belong on Broadway so Kermit, Piggy, Scooter, Gonzo, Animal, Fozzie and all the other beloved Muppet Show characters soon arrive in Manhattan, determined to get their show produced and to take the town by storm. However, as in all backstage musicals, there are obstacles to overcome. Theatrical agents are unfriendly and less than enthused; they run out of money; they need to take a variety of jobs out of town; a major character has a Brief Encounter moment with a taxi and ends up amnesic etc. However, as this is musical comedy, everything turns out all right in the end, just in time for a lavish wedding finale featuring just about every Muppet ever created.

Frank Oz, the masterful muppeteer turned director, helms the production and has fun deconstructing any number of backstage musical and New York movie clichés. There are visual bits out of MGM Mickey/Judy musicals, Warner Brothers Ruby Keeler/Dick Powell extravaganzas, and even nods to the working girl comedies of Ginger Rogers and Judy Holliday. While they are fun, plunking the Muppets in the thoroughly human world of modern Manhattan doesn't always work well; I would have preferred a more stylized Muppet universe. There's also a little too much reliance on the familiar face star cameo. Dabney Coleman, Gregory Hines, Linda Lavin, Brooke Shields and Joan Rivers, amongst others, all turn up.

The major human roles, however, go to Louis Zorich as a diner owner and Juliana Donald as his daughter. Zorich, a well known New York character actor, plays his part too broadly and Donald is pretty much a non-entity. Lonny Price, as the tyro producer who eventually gets the show on, fares a bit better but also has less screen time.

One does not watch films with the Muppets for the humans, however, but for the familiar Muppet characters. While the film is ostensibly Kermit's story, Miss Piggy, of course, steals every scene she's in. Whether it's roller skating through Central Park after a purse snatcher or making a disaster out of a cosmetic counter with Joan Rivers, she's the one you remember at the end of the day. The writers, including Oz, Tom Patchett and Jay Tarses, have worked out some clever ways to keep the story moving and to work in the supporting Muppet cast. They're at the best when letting the Muppets be themselves and weaker when they try to shoehorn them into human plots.

Like almost all Muppet undertakings, this is a musical with music by Ralph Burns and Jeffrey Moss. It's enjoyable, but not especially memorable. The best number is a doo-wop for Kermit and Miss Piggy as Muppet babies in an oversized nursery.

Living in lockers. Failed water-ski tricks. Soap ad campaigns. Gratuitous Ed Koch. Karate chopped construction workers. Rat waiters. Kermit with facial hair. Singing wedding cakes. Dancing tuxedos.

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