LOS ANGELES – "We can't give the people what they want at the beginning," Kermit the Frog instructed early on Friday's Muppets invasion at the Hollywood Bowl. "We have to make them want you."
He was advising Miss Piggy, his demanding diva of an ex who, not surprisingly, clamored for the spotlight from the get-go in "The Muppets Take the Bowl," the first of three such extravaganzas at the venue.
Yet Kermit may as well have been addressing the audience. Being a Muppets fan in 2017 is often an emotionally up-and-down affair.
The critters were evicted from Disneyland in 2014. Although films in 2011 and 2014 appeared to revive the characters for a new generation, a 2015 ABC sitcom derailed any major comeback.
And while many a die-hard is now grown – and the Bowl wasn't overrun with kids Friday – the Muppets work best when they're still relatively young at heart. Puns and innuendos? Bring 'em on. Depressed Muppets with a bounty of relationship issues? Hard pass.
So fans were no doubt hungry for old-fashioned zaniness, and what a joy of a show they got. The revue tapped all that made the Muppets special – a wide-eyed earnestness to discovering music, goofy routines that emphasized merriment over snark, and the belief that happiness and show-biz liveliness transcend any generational trend.
"The Muppets Take the Bowl" was a celebratory affair that actually felt relatively essential. For this was a show in which a shrimp could command control of an orchestra and remix Beethoven's Fifth into a fiery Latin dance number, a female pig could lead a spaceship and a blue-furred creature could offer a brief lesson in individuality.
If it wasn't exactly a study in diversity, it was a testament to the power of inclusivity. For all the Muppets' reinventions and misadventures, one constant has generally held true. While Kermit may struggle to keep this easily distracted crew on-message, the Muppets exist to embrace – to absorb, often with wonderment, everything from bad jokes to magic to popular music.
The troupe was accompanied by the Hollywood Bowl Orchestra, led by the never-not-affable Thomas Wilkins, and the stage was dressed like an old-fashioned theater. Projection effects put us in space and on a road trip, and though puppeteers were always visible, Muppet personalities are outsized, and the hands beneath the fleece soon became essentially invisible.
The show brought back some fan-favorite sketches – there was a "Pigs in Space" bit, in which a "2001" monolith essentially became a chatty Amazon Alexa-like device, and a "Muppet Labs" routine showed us the troll-like Muppets lurking in the dark corners of the Internet. Music, as always, was a focal point.
No doubt "The Muppet Show" during its run in the late '70s served as a sort of musical discovery engine, one where the likes of Paul Simon, Alice Cooper or Johnny Cash were likely to pop in. And while cynics may write off Muppet takes on well-known songs as novelty numbers, house band Dr. Teeth and the Electric Mayhem always approached them with pure adoration.
That was true Friday, when the band brought a summer-of-love spirit to Edwarde Sharpe & the Magnetic Zeros' "Home," a take that played up the tune's hokey sentimentality. Here's hoping all of us, if only for one moment, can experience the love apparent between band members Floyd Pepper and Janice.
The band – and yes, the band was made up of puppets, but the orchestra did a rather fine job of creating the illusion of realness – segued effortlessly into David Bowie's "Suffragette City." If it caught some by surprise that its shouts of "wham bam thank you ma'am!" weren't edited out, the Muppets have long been family-friendly without pandering, and it's also indicative of how much those behind the Muppets love their music. Everyone, after all, knows you don't mess with Bowie.
Miss Piggy had her way with Adele's "Hello," until its cartoonish, show tune-like rendition had its way with her, and no Muppets gig would be complete without the Kermit-led "Rainbow Connection," joined here by Paul Williams (who, along with Kenneth Ascher, wrote it) and comedian Bobby Moynihan, who served as an unobtrusive host who largely set the Muppets up for their own gags.
There were nonmusical highlights as well – parodies such as "Keeping Up With the Crustaceans" and "The Walking Bread" that went beyond their potential one-joke gags.
Even a simple farce can turn into a character study in the right hands. And thus, if there was any connecting thread, it was to embrace your eccentricities. As Gonzo said, "It is not OK to be a weirdo. It is amazing!"