John Katsilometes

The Kats Report: Brian Henson’s ‘Puppet Up!’ improv-comedy show prepares to invade the Venetian

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Kindred spirits: Puppet Up! is similar to but definitely not the same as other puppet shows in town.
Best West Entertainment

I have seen the future of Las Vegas entertainment, and it’s somewhat fuzzy with a hand stuffed up its rear end.

This is the new-to-Vegas stage show Puppet Up! Uncensored, due for a spring opening at Sands Showroom at the Venetian (plans are for a 9 p.m. start, six nights a week). The show was created by Brian Henson—son of the late master of Muppets Jim Henson—and directed by comic actor Patrick Bristow, the show’s host.

It falls under the Henson Alternative division of the Jim Henson Company, and is co-produced by companies familiar with Strip stage shows: Base Entertainment and Adam Steck’s SPI Entertainment. The former produces Jersey Boys and Rock of Ages and co-produces Absinthe (with that show’s creator, Spiegelworld); the latter has Boyz II Men, Frank Marino’s Divas Las Vegas, Human Nature and Thunder From Down Under in its arsenal.

You’ll notice the absence of puppets in those productions. That will change with the arrival of a few dozen puppet figures and a half-dozen comics-turned-puppeteers (except in the instance when the puppeteer becomes a comic, about half the time). The production was showcased earlier this month at the Kirk Douglas Theatre in Culver City, California, and about packed the 300-capacity venue. The Sands theater is about 740 seats.

This is a large charge for a form of entertainment that has yet to succeed at this scope on the Strip. I’m reminded of the night I watched a similarly inventive show, Avenue Q at Encore Theater, and the pointedly satirical number “Everyone’s a Little Racist.” I busted up, and so did the other audience members—all 400 of them. Problem was, Encore Theater seats about four times that capacity.

Weeks before Puppet Up! lands in Vegas, some lessons in puppetry:

This is not Avenue Q. There is salty adult language. And Puppet Up! is loosely scripted in that some of the dialogue and activity has been rehearsed, but there is no “book” or story to what is being performed. The similarity is that the performers are “open” to the audience, fully visible even in black shirts and pants. But this is not a Broadway-style production in the true spirit of Q.

This is not the Second City. Nor is it Whose Line Is It Anyway?, where a host filters audience suggestions and the comics just go to work. The puppets make the difference. Sixty of them, set on what looks like a set of bleachers at stage right. When suggestions are called from the audience, the performers typically turn to the puppets before they engage one another.

This is not ventriloquism. No Terry Fator-styled action here, but the performers do sing. There are two video panels looming at each side of the stage to show a kind of TV version of the performance. Or you can watch the performer in the middle of the stage playing to the camera. Either way it’s fascinating, but lips are always moving.

This is not Puppetry of the Penis. Ah, but there is a collection of puppets dubbed the Hot Dogs that are used in a segment of the show. Phallic by design, the Hot Dogs would work well in a cross-promotional campaign with Puppetry of the Penis at Erotic Heritage Museum (I suggested the Hot Dogs bum-rush it one night, just turn up and let the hijinks ensue).

These are not Muppets. Key difference here. As Henson reminded, Disney is now the overlord of the Muppet fiefdom. Shortly before his death, Jim Henson had been working on a deal to sell the Muppet brand and licensing rights to Disney. That deal was finalized in 2004, long after Henson’s death. So you will not see Miss Piggy, Kermit, Fozzie Bear and the rest of the Muppet superstars in the stage show at the Venetian. To you and me, these puppets are relatively anonymous.

These puppets do look like Muppets, however. There’s a character whose appearance slyly reminds of Sesame Street anchorman Guy Smiley, and many of the puppets used in Puppet Up! bear a similarity to those from generations earlier.

Come prepared. The audience at Kirk Douglas Theatre was ready to shout at Bristow’s command. “A strange topic for a game show!” one man shouted. “Burglarizing a house!” came back in a series of fast responses, and the performers were quick to develop a game show with that as the theme. But on the Strip, audiences are not always fully aware of the point of a show as intricately aligned as Puppet Up!

Human Nature and Lipshtick are still alive. The 9 p.m. slot planned for Puppet Up! won’t chase HN from the Sands Showroom. As for Lipshtick, it’s moving to Palazzo Theatre this spring.

Be patient. This is another high-quality production that’s inspired and organically crafted, similar to For the Record: Baz and Alice: A Steampunk Rock Concert Fantasy—basically, you need to see the show to appreciate what it is. It will require months of investment to fully realize its box-office potential, even as (I expect) those who see the show will find it smartly conceived and very funny. As a title, Puppet Up! rolls off the tongue and fits neatly on a billboard. But the description takes a while, and even requires the aid of a few dozen puppets.

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