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Cheers and excitement at Retrospectacle with Bret McKenzie

bret-and-kermit-2
Photo: Rob Sarkies

Review from RNZ Music by Yadana Saw
As band leader, MC, stand-up comedian and presenter, hometown hero Bret McKenzie was definitely a hit in the Jim Henson Retrospectacle tribute concert tonight.

Whether your favourite Muppet 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 felted stars were in plain sight, giving the audience a rare view of their skill.

Though a projection screen displayed how audiences usually see the Muppets – with muppeteers well out of shot – my eye was drawn to the stage where the muppets, McKenzie and muppeteers were crammed together.

The gentle familiarity of Kermit, the unflinching 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.

It was here that Henson’s vision to create joy and never break the suspension of disbelief really showed its magic.

The music of the Muppet universe showed itself to be 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.

The only time the show came back from 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, must anchor for the audience. He is band leader, MC, stand-up comedian and presenter.

He is the human form of The Muppets Show’s Scooter and Kermit for show night – 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, not his customary raggedy jeans and op-shop tee shirt, it is his deserved time to shine.

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 expand his stage presence.

This is definitely New Zealand’s first most popular orchestral, Muppet, folk comedy variety show.