By Colin Douglas
As kids and parents during the 70’s can attest, televised bite-size lessons in math, science, grammar and social studies, set to music and taught by colorful cartoon characters, were faster and far more memorable and longer lasting than an entire year spent in a dusty classroom.
These Schoolhouse Rock mini lessons, first televised during commercial breaks between Saturday morning cartoons, were catchy, funny and unforgettable. The succinct bites of information became so popular they sparked their own cartoon series, as well as several recordings and DVDs, and ultimately became a stage musical revue featuring most of the series’ greatest hits.
The glue that holds together the hour-long stage version, Schoolhouse Rock Live! is Tom, a new teacher waking up on his first day of teaching with reservations about how to reach his students.
He tries to take his mind off his worries by watching TV and stumbles upon reruns of Schoolhouse Rock. Suddenly his personality splits into three other characters who help Tom regain his confidence and remember something he’d once realized: Learning can be fun.
The rest of the cast reacquaints the new teacher with a dozen rousing, unforgettable songs, thanks to the guidance of Austin Cook’s masterful musical direction in the current Emerald City Theatre production. The show is elevated by Morgan Ashley Madison’s dynamic direction, including some sassy and spirited staging and choreography. Madison works her magic, keeping her production moving and shaking all over the stage, up and down the aisles and into the audience. And kudos, as well, go to Sarah Jo White for her colorful costumes, Claire Chzran for the show’s magnificent lighting, Michael Stanfill for his impressive projection design and Greg Pinsoneault for an array of astounding props.
This stage musical, originally adapted and produced for the stage by Theatre BAM, was co-created from the TV series by George Newall and Tom Yohe, with a book by local talents, Scott Ferguson, George Keating and Kyle Hall. The music and lyrics are the work of Lynn Ahrens, Bob Dorough, Dave Frishberg, Kathy Mandry, as well as Newall and Yohe.
Emerald City Theatre has assembled a crackerjack, first-rate ensemble of four actor/singer/dancers. Ron King makes a charming, likably boyish Tom, the teacher who, after changing out of his pajamas, joins the others in these joyously celebrated songs and dance numbers. Lillie Cummings stands out as Dina, performing, among other numbers, her ode to Women’s Rights, “Sufferin’ Till Suffrage,” and her grammatical shout-out, “Interjections!” Emily Goldberg as sweet, often confused Shulie endearingly instructs us to “Unpack Your Adjectives” and becomes a lovable superhero as “Interplanet Janet.” The outstanding Jed Feder plays punk glam rocker George, demonstrating that “Three is a Magic Number,” and musically explaining how he’s “Just a Bill,” journeying toward becoming a law.
Each performer joins into the country/western hoedown of “A Person, Place or Thing” and then teaches us the message behind “The Preamble.” Tom leads the cast through a high-energy game of tag about counting by 5’s (“Ready or Not, Here I Come!”) and he becomes an R&B engineer traveling through “Conjunction Junction.” Then King capably ties everything up in the finale (“The Tale of Mr. Morton”), demonstrating all the brand new skills and ideas he’s mastered. The entire cast’s comic timing, musical talent and joyful dancing pepper everything in this show with style.
Perhaps a bit short on plot, but towering with morals, the lessons this show teaches and the fond memories it evokes makes Emerald City’s new production especially recommended for children, grades 2-6 (along with their parents and grandparents).
If, unbelievably, a child is unfamiliar with these wonderfully catchy, colorful instructional ditties, then this show is a must-see to introduce them to these catchy songs. But if audiences are simply looking for a joyful, intoxicating blast from the past to share with their kids, this is absolutely the best way to both introduce young people to theatre, reinforce some of the lessons learned in school and put a spring in everyone’s step.
Emerald City Theatre presents “Schoolhouse Rock Live!” through June 5 at the Apollo Theater, 2540 N. Lincoln Ave., Chicago. More information and tickets available by phone at (773) 935-6100 or online here. Additional reviews by Colin are found at www.theatreinchicago.com.