Sunday, May 4, 2014

theatre review SCHOOLHOUSE ROCK LIVE!, Childsplay, April 26

Click on this link to read my complete review (highlights below) at Talkin' Broadway of Schoolhouse Rock Live! at Childsplay.

Rudy Ramirez, Eric Boudreau, Molly Robinson and Keilani Akagi
Setting something that you have to memorize to music makes it infinitely easier to remember. With rhythmic lyrics and repetitive phrases, things you learned this way years ago can still easily be remembered today. And as anyone who grew up in the 1970s also knows, a series of animated short musical films that aired on ABC on Saturday mornings called "Schoolhouse Rock" showed some of the easiest ways to learn about everything, from nouns, adjectives and conjunctions to how a bill makes its way through Congress to the President of the United States. The upbeat, easy to remember lyrics taught lessons on such topics as grammar, math, history and science. The popularity of the short films caused the series to run into the mid 1980s. This was followed by CDs and videos, as well as a live stage version in the mid '90s called Schoolhouse Rock Live! that included some of the most popular songs from the series. Childsplay just opened Schoolhouse Rock Live! in a wonderful production that is a fun, energetic and engaging way for children of all ages to learn, and for anyone who grew up with "Schoolhouse Rock," a nostalgic trip down memory lane.

The songs of "Schoolhouse Rock" were written by a group of songwriters, including Lynn Ahrens, who would go on to write the lyrics for several Broadway shows. But Schoolhouse Rock Live! isn't just a series of the songs from the TV version performed live; there is a story to give the musical journey some weight. The story follows Tom, a teacher, who is nervous about his first day on the job. He tries to relax by watching TV and when he discovers that "Schoolhouse Rock" episodes are airing, characters emerge to show him how to use the lessons from the TV shorts to help educate his students. What follows is a succession of over a dozen songs, starting with ones on verbs and nouns, and then building upon those principles of grammar to also include math, history, science and social studies.

Director Anthony Runfola puts a modern spin on these classic 1970s and '80s songs by including updated references to "selfies" and texting language like "lol" and "omg" in the brief dialogue scenes around the musical numbers. "Interplanet Janet," the song about the solar system, has also been updated with an added line to state that Pluto is no longer considered a planet. Musical director Alan Ruch has also wisely updated the arrangements to bring a modern, pop/rock feel to the musical numbers. Energetic, fun and varied choreography from Molly Lajoie combines nicely with Runfola's creative use of the entire space to stage the many energetic numbers. The combination of the video game inspired set design by Holly Windingstad, Tim Monson's rock concert style lighting and the clever use of projections from Limitrophe Films make this production really shine. Also, D. Daniel Hollingshead's costumes are bright, colorful and effective and make the actors stand out from the more subtle, muted shades of the set design. The projections are continually varied and creative and include words of various sizes projected on white boards held by the cast during "Unpack Your Adjectives" and "Interjections" as well as the use of an x-ray style cartoon of a beating heart during "Do the Circulation." Monson's lighting design also uses shadows to great effect, including a simple yet clear way of showing the large silhouettes of hands and fingers counting during the multiplication sequence. All in all, there is very effective and clever use of all of the production elements

Schoolhouse Rock Live! shows that learning can be fun with catchy songs that are memorable. Childsplay's production is imaginative, with superb creative elements and an energetic cast. Short on narrative, but with such hit "Schoolhouse Rock" songs as "Just a Bill," "Conjunction Junction," "Interjections" and "A Noun Is a Person, Place or Thing," this show will really make any person who was schooled on "Schoolhouse Rock" smile. Recommended for children ages six and up, it will teach younger children a thing or two about many topics and will most likely be a refresher course for the adults in the audience as well.

Schoolhouse Rock at Childsplay runs through May 25th, 2014, at the Tempe Center for the Arts, 700 W. Rio Salado Parkway in Tempe, with performances on Saturdays at 1 p.m. and 4 p.m. and Sundays at 1 p.m. Tickets start at $12 and are on sale at or at the Tempe Center for the Arts Box Office (480) 350-2822 (ext. 0)

Photo: Tim Trumbule

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