Bert has stage fright, Ernie has wandered off to take a bath, and a certain blue gourmand has already eaten the first two letters of his alphabet song. (They appear to be made of chocolate chip cookie, what was the prop master thinking?) But everything is just as it ought to be at “Sesame Street: The Musical,” a playful and captivating on-ramp to a love of show business, now running Off Broadway at Theater Row.
Though the cuddly oddballs of “Sesame Street” have been amusing and educating children on TV for more than 50 years, on a Saturday morning at the theater, the pint-size fans are a discerning and unruly bunch, liable to throw their hands up and start wailing at any moment. (The show is recommended for ages 3 and above.) They are not afraid to ask the tough questions. (“Hey, where’s Elmo going?” one eager voice appealed.) And they have an instinctual appreciation for the shiny things in life. (“Look, bubbles!”)
The new stage production, written, directed and produced by Jonathan Rockefeller, in collaboration with Sesame Workshop, delivers a meta look behind the scenes at the art of putting on a musical. A headset-clad lamb, defying the typical all-black stage manager’s uniform in favor of its natural coat, is running the show. (“Quiet ba-a-a-ackstage!”) The dramatic crisis, quickly resolved, arrives early: Somehow, the gang forgot to book a special guest. Stephen Fala, posing as a stray patron, ambles onstage and finds his big break. And with dimples like that, it’s no wonder.
Pinnacles of the indelible “Sesame Street” song catalog, like “Rubber Duckie” and “C Is for Cookie,” are mixed in with numbers meant to teach the human newbie in their midst, a clear audience surrogate, how to save the show. Never carried a tune? Be Rosita’s echo in “Sing After Me.” Can’t dance? The Count can teach you “The Batty Bat,” though you may prefer to take after Elmo, who at least has legs to demonstrate that he’s got the moves. A few new songs by Tom Kitt, Helen Park and Nate Edmondson touch on the power of imagination and dressing up as a vehicle for self-affirming play.
Naturally, all that sounds like a reeking load of garbage to Oscar the Grouch, who assumes the part of a critic at large for this paper — subtly rebranded “The New Yuck Times” — with a review that decries the show as, “Stinky! Rotten! Trash!” (Respectfully, I disagree.) “You better not enjoy yourselves,” he warns. “Or I’ll have nothing to write about!” What’s an introduction to theater without a proper critic’s roast?
Unfortunately for Oscar, who growls his signature ode “I Love Trash” with sour panache, the musical he knocks is far from rubbish, though it’s largely and lovingly fashioned from recycled material. A classic count-to-12 ditty harks back to the program’s 1970s roots, as do a pair of hares whose accordion limbs stretch like taffy in a funky dance break.
Rockefeller’s production nicely blends the charm and wit of the early days of “Sesame Street” with both old-school and more modern characters, all courtesy of Jim Henson’s creature shop. Gabrielle, who sports Afro puffs, and Rosita, who speaks Spanish, are markers of its continued attention to social values like inclusion and understanding.
Though its rich-hued aesthetics and loose structure are smartly designed to hold the attention of the young and restless, “Sesame Street: The Musical” rewards adults with the wonders of nostalgia and a few knowing ribs about life behind the footlights. It’s a beguiling place to play pretend — and to learn a thing or two about how to grow up in the real world.
Sesame Street: The Musical
Through Nov. 27 at Theater Row, Manhattan; sesamestreetmusical.com. Running time: 1 hour 10 minutes.