Commentary: Spectacular Emmet Otter Show Exceeds Ambitious Goals

Emmet Otters Jug Band Christmas features many hand-fashioned puppets such as this owl that were built by the crew and actors.
Emmet Otter’s Jug Band Christmas features many hand-fashioned puppets such as this owl that were built by the crew and actors.
Bob Pohlad
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  • From left, Django Burgess, freshman; Stewart Werner, junior; Emily Blankenship-Tucker, director; Emily Walker, junior; and Rachel Blankenship-Tucker, assistant director; perform one of the show’s final numbers.

  • At left, Assistant Director of Recruiting Justin Muse (Mayor Fox) is heckled by Yancey Woodchuck, piloted by Troy Smith.

  • The jug band performs at the Talent Contest. From left, they are Assistant Director Rachel Blankenship-Tucker; Stewart Werner, junior; Emily Walker, junior; and Django Burgess, freshman.

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Sliding in the snow with her son Emmet, Alice (“Ma”) Otter observes, “Pa didn’t leave us much, but that old slide is just about enough.”

Having just about enough is a key theme in Emmet Otter’s Jug-Band Christmas. The 1977 Jim Henson-inspired, made-for television movie, based on a book by Russell and Lillian Hoban, is now the basis for a live theatrical adaptation licensed by Henson’s company.

Muppet fans and theatregoers in the region are lucky that one of the two places to see the show this holiday season is Ferrum College, staged by the Blue Ridge Dinner Theatre and Ferrum College Theatre Arts.

This production is so much more than “just about enough”.

The show is an ambitious blend of drama, music, puppetry, creative staging, and home-grown talent that will wow audiences of all ages. It is an apt reminder that theatre is, first and foremost, spectacle. And every aspect of the production hits just the right key to set the holiday mood.

Coordinating these elements requires considerable theatrical magic, and the show is the big dream of a multi-talented team: Director Emily Blankenship-Tucker, who also serves as music director and plays Alice; Rachel Blankenship-Tucker, co-director, who plays Harvey Beaver as well as the jug-band’s washboard; and Lead Puppet Designer Rebecca Crocker.

The importance of dreaming is reinforced in the song “Alice, Keep Dreaming”, a musical addition to the original movie that brings Pa Otter into the cast because, in his words, “What Christmas play doesn’t have a ghost?”

This dream is brought to life on a winter landscape complete with the river, all of it the work of scenic designers Mary Turner and Bruce Burgess, along with a team of carpenters and painters who double as characters or puppeteers.

When Emmet and Alice enter, rowing to town to deliver laundry and greeting neighbors along their route, their progress feels genuine, thanks to clever use of set pieces and mechanisms. The Otter family’s small cabin is a cozy wonder that pivots quickly from exterior to interior.  Even the set’s trees appear real.

The production’s charming look is enhanced through the costumes designed by Kristina Stump, who also plays Hetty Muskrat. The blend of human cast and hand-made creatures is seamless, and the puppets’ animalistic qualities—fur, ears, tails—are reflected in the cast’s wardrobe.

Puppet wizard Crocker and her team constructed more than 30 puppets, and their creations alone are worth the price of admission. A scurry of squirrels nearly steals the show with their antics.

No production of Emmet Otter is likely to succeed without an effective duo in the lead roles, and Emily Blankenship-Tucker and Emily Walker, junior, who plays Emmet, both deliver stellar performances, their musical duets particularly moving.

Blankenship-Tucker is a BRDT favorite, having had many roles during her 21-plus years in the community, most recently as M’Lynn in Steel Magnolias. Walker, from Penhook, is a talented musician who was recently recruited to live theatre for the production of No, No, a Thousand Times No! Nevertheless, Walker performs like a veteran.

Another highlight is the Riverbottom Nightmare Band’s number, briefly transforming the show into a rock concert. The band is led by Ferrum faculty member David Campbell, front man for the local band Kerosene Willy, as Stan Weasel.  Campbell is joined by Scout Lynch, sophomore, (Fred Lizard); Stewart Werner, junior, (on bass and doubling as Charlie Muskrat in the Jug Band); and the ever-useful Django Burgess, freshman, (drums). The Nightmare Band changes the musical tone, lifts the energy level, and ratchets up the lighting effects.

The production’s regular accompaniment, in the hands of pianist David Mitchell, is just right; it enhances the work of the singers and instrumentalists without ever overpowering it.

These performers are joined by an effective supporting cast across a broad range of ages, from Silas Blankenship-Tucker as Skippy Skunk to Linda Witt as Mrs. Mink, and a spectrum of experience, from the subtle professionalism of BRDT veteran Rachel Blankenship-Tucker to the enthusiasm of theatrical newcomer Justin Muse (Mayor Fox)–also the college’s senior director of recruiting.

Almost every actor serves multiple functions. In addition to drumming in the Nightmare Band, Burgess, from Danbury, NC, delivers a loveably goofy performance as Wendell Porcupine and blows the jug that gives the band its name. But Burgess also spent weeks building and painting set pieces in the theatre’s shop.

Gage Shelton, a junior from Rocky Mount who voices the show’s narrator, Doc Bullfrog, learned to sew to make puppets for the production. Their efforts, combined with the contributions from Ferrum faculty, staff, alumni, and community members, illustrate Emily Blankenship-Tucker’s observation:

“(The production) is a testament to the power of community and the gift of shared imagination.”

The power of community is affirmed in the finale, when Alice Otter realizes that her talent show song and the jug-band’s number could fit together.  The song itself, “In Our World”, provides a timely lesson that Doc Bullfrog says best:

“Well, folks, that’s might fine music. I thought you needed a something a little extra. But it appears to me that what you needed was each other.”

The union of Alice and Emmet with their friends and neighbors is more than just enough. Emmet Otter’s Jug-Band Christmas brings home the same lesson famously sung by another band, The Rolling Stones:

“You can’t always get what you want, but if you try sometime, you just might find, you get what you need.”

Performances of Emmet Otter’s Jug-Band Christmas continue in Sale Theatre at Ferrum College through Dec. 17. For tickets and additional information, go to


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    Mandell and CarolynDec 9, 2023 at 8:44 am

    Awesome job Lana! Your summary is spot on!