The newly renovated Howard Theater is now a sparkling gem, brimming with excitement and glamour on an otherwise drab still-undergoing-rehab corner north of the Howard U. Metro stop. Judging from the size of the crowd that showed up for the Henson Alternative adult puppet show, the place will be the next “Have you been there, yet?” happening spot for musical entertainment befitting its legacy.
Part of the breath-taking architectural design of the theater includes huge black and white photos of legendary performers, beckoning from the exterior and along the lower level hallway where the young Sam Cook and Billy Holliday grace the walls – even images of Lena Horne and Diana Ross greet patrons in the spacious restrooms. The aqua blue lighting that arches the stage emits a luscious hue that glows throughout the building and is breathtaking from the balcony. Both levels contain well stocked bars in the back, delicious food service, and comfortable seating from all vantage points. The Howard Theater is an absolute jewel in the heart of the city.
Seeing any quality act is good enough reason to visit the Howard Theater, where shows are already selling out, and the Henson Puppet Alternative ensemble fits the bill for fun and entertainment.
Imagine the hysterical Avenue Q puppets on improv-inducing steroids, cutting quips and spewing forth whatever they dang well please and you’ll have an idea of the fun that can ensue from this ensemble. A motley crew of six talented puppeteers commandeer the random scenes where in true improvisational fashion, the audience is encouraged to shout out suggestions for key scene elements, and scenarios are created on the spot.
Mix in a few songs and a little music periodically along with creativity up the whazoo for explosively funny moments. The group was just as comfortable staging vintage routines from early Jim Henson days as demonstrating some of the latest digital gimmickry, superimposing images on an actor’s head in the middle of a frame. Watching such talented artists creating scenes on the spot added to the excitement of witnessing sheer the genius at work.
The crackling sharp and charged Patrick Bristow functions as the host, explaining the routines, selecting audience members to participate, soliciting tidbits of their responses to explore, and keeping the bits running while offering funny commentary of his own. In true D.C. fashion, one young lawyer-type indicated that her ultimate career objective is to be Chief of Staff—a term that was flipped into a bluesy number with a whole nether-based meaning. No topic was off limits and nothing left unsaid. In another case, the audience shouts out when a line of dialog should be turned into a song, again with hilarious results.
Part of the magic of the show is breaking down any and all barriers by showing the puppeteers in full-body motion on the stage, while large monitors show the upper section with just the puppets in view. There’s no guessing “How’d they do that?” since all is exposed, but the wonder is still there—seeing how the operators slip along the scenes, flowing in motion adds to the appreciation for the final results.
“Henson Alternative” is the Jim Henson Company’s label for content created specifically and exclusively for adult audiences, led by Brian Henson, son of the late master puppeteer. The group has amassed loyal followers around the world, where they’re known in some circles as the “miscreant” puppets, and “Puppet-Up! Uncensored.” Whatever their nom-de-jour, they are bound to strike funny bones and nerves, so be sure to catch them on their next tour.
Stuffed and Unstrung has closed but there are new shows nearly every night at The Howard Theatre, 620 T Street NW, Washington, DC.
Details and tickets
Henson Alternative: Stuffed and Unstrung
Presented at the Howard Theater
Reviewed by Debbie Minter Jackson
Running Time: 2 hours, with one intermission