High stepping song and dance fun with a subtle chaser of knowledge, Broadway In Chicago is remounting School House Rock Live! as a beat-the-heat summertime treat. Less calories than an ice cream cone, but equally as sweet, a quartet of hardworking singing, dancing and acting Chicago hoofers are bringing these Award-winning cartoon shorts to vivid life for a brand new generation. Originally adapted and produced for the stage by Theatre BAM, this version has been whittled down to just over 50 minutes by director and choreographer Morgan Ashley Madison. After a successful Windy City spring run at the Apollo Theater, Broadway in Chicago is bringing Rock’s charming, 20 song, family fare to the Michigan Avenue crowd. For those who may not recall, the original School House Rock began as 3 minute educational messages cleverly disguised in musical snippets, focusing on a variety of subjects including history, math, grammar, science and civics in the years before MTV was even a thing. Originally 37 inventive episodes were produced from 1973-1985, and played on the weekends back when Saturday morning cartoons were also a thing. Inserted between episodes of Captain Caveman and the Teen Angels, The Super Friends, Josie and the Pussycats and Scooby-Doo, the School House Rock videos would routinely play. Blending educational lessons with quirky lyrics and visuals, these vignettes took on a life of their own. The original animated series was created by George Newall and Tom Yohe, and the Theatre BAM stage show was reinvented with a book by Scott Ferguson, George Keating and Kyle Hall and music and lyrics by Lynn Ahrens, Bob Dorough, Dave Frishberg, Kathy Mandry, George Newall and Tom Yohe.
This fast paced musical revue was a unique combination. Geared toward 3-12 year old audience members, but containing a soundtrack appealing directly to their nostalgic parents. With production values akin to that of a theme park show, School House Rock Live! Was presented much like a smaller scale rock concert. The four central actors, whirled and twirled, ran and jumped across the stage, and into the audience too, while delivering their melodious scholastic messages. The minimalistic story linking the songs together, centered around a nervous first year teacher, Tom (Ron King) at the beginning of a new school season. He anxiously awakened fretting about making the all important connection between his new students and his well arranged lesson plans. As he prepared for his day, Tom frantically began to listen to the “voices” in his head, played by Dori (Eliza-Jane Morris), George (Jed Feder) and Shulie (Emily Goldberg). The next hour was spent, singing in rotation, reliving musical highlights from the Emmy Award-winning 1970’s Saturday morning School House Rock series. Madison’s choreography was quick pace while the costuming from Sarah Jo White, a Crayola crayon inspired explosion of color, featuring the cast clad in bright orange denim, pink feathers, turquoises trousers and more.
Almost all the classic hits are here. The show is just 50 minutes in length, so with each clip clocking in at three minutes a piece, to include all 37 original episodes would land the show just under two hours. As this plays with no intermission, song cuts had to made. Sorry “Elbow Room.” What you do get is a high spirited, rapid-fire succession of songs including “A Noun is a Person, Place or Thing,” “Three is a Magic Number” and my personal childhood favorite “Sufferin’ Till Suffrage” remember, “not a woman here could vote no matter what age. Then the 19th amendment struck down that restrictive rule. Oh Yeah!” The show continued on with a backpack wearing, sign holding “Unpack your Adjectives,” fan favorites “I’m Just a Bill” & “The Preamble.” We, the people next enjoyed a zippy rendition of “Ready or Not, Here I Come” which is the song highlighting multiplying by 5’s, with 1960’s inspired choreography, “Do The Circulation” and “Rufus Xavier Sarsaparilla” better known as the pronoun song. One of the characters joked, “I learned so much in-between bowls of Cocoa Puffs.” Yes, looks like we all did.
Michael Stanfill’s clever projections flicker boldly on two large video screens behind the performers. For a show that has been playing for half a year, there were a few snafus opening day on the Broadway Playhouse stage. This is a much tighter performance space than the Apollo’s staging and there were several near miss collisions by the performers, as their dancing was full out. Goldberg’s skirt fell off at the end of her endearing “Interplanet Janet” and this “galaxy girl” handled it like a pro proclaiming “I’m so excited about this song, my skirt fell off.” The show wrapped with the function-al “Conjunction Junction” and “Interjections!” Proving learning can be fun and “knowledge is power” the cast put it all out there on the floor. As the staging here is quite intimate, and the pace frenetic, the audience easily saw every hard earned drop of each performer’s sweat.
Original producer Emerald City was founded in 1996 and has been widely recognized for creating “theatre experiences that inspire early learners through play.” Producing over 29 world premieres which played at both the Apollo Theater in Lincoln Park and the Broadway Playhouse at Water Tower Place stages, School House Rock Live! easily fits in with their cache of distinctive programming. Combining music and games in a show on the path to educational discovery, this Rock! is easily a win for all involved. A bonus tidbit pointed out by a little young lady sitting near me at the official opening, directly across from the Broadway Playhouse Theater is the American Girl Doll Store. You can craft an entire family outing in just a matter of a few blocks. On a 90* humid and hazy, crowded city summer day, how cool is that?
Emerald City Theatre’s School House Rock Live! is now playing at the Broadway Playhouse at Water Tower Place through August 28,2016