SCHOOLHOUSE ROCK LIVE!
at Cafe Voltaire
Schoolhouse Rock Live! is one of those rare shows that work both as an evening of amusing, mildly campy nostalgia--not unlike The Real Live Brady Bunch--and as a compelling piece of children's theater. Adapted from the long-running educational series Schoolhouse Rock, broadcast Saturday mornings from 1973 to 1985, the show is essentially a "best of" musical revue in which a perky six-member cast sing and act out songs from the show.
The original Schoolhouse Rock, if you'll remember, consisted of numerous two- to three-minute animated cartoons scattered throughout the Saturday-morning lineup, sometimes appearing between shows, other times jostling with a crowd of commercials. Each cartoon featured a clever original pop song that drove home some basic concept of math, English, history, or science: the threes column on the multiplication table ("Three is a magic number") or the definition of a noun ("A noun is a person, place, or thing").
The brainchild of ad executive David McCall, the original Schoolhouse Rock (like Sesame Street and The Electric Company) was supposed to harness the power of television to better prepare kids for school. The show probably prepared kids more for MTV than for the sedate world of the classroom, however. Neil Postman's stinging criticism of Sesame Street also applies to Schoolhouse Rock: the show "does not encourage children to love school or anything about school. It encourages them to love television."
Schoolhouse Rock Live! retains all that is best and worst of the original. The songs--by Lynn Ahrens, Bob Dorough, Dave Frishberg, and George Newall--are entertaining, lively, and very memorable. (I keep catching myself humming "Conjunction Junction.") As educational tools, however, the songs are most valuable when it comes to facts that must be memorized--"Hey!" is an interjection, "and," "but," and "or" are conjunctions, 8 times 8 is 64. But they stumble when they tackle more complex or abstract ideas.
The song "Sufferin' 'Till Sufferage" basically boils down the suffrage movement to a series of names and dates. The song "The Great American Melting Pot" even distorts the facts, stating that America was "founded by the English, but also by the Germans, Dutch, and French." I don't want to sound like Captain PC, but to fail to mention either Africans who came against their will or the Spanish--and they were only the first modern Europeans in America--is typical of white Anglophilic myopia.
Despite these minor flaws, Schoolhouse Rock Live! is a wonderfully engaging show. Director Scott Ferguson has done a superb job of staging the songs, thanks in no small part to Kate Dowe's and Karyn Pauli's inventive choreography. There is literally not a slow microsecond. And what Ferguson and company manage to do with a minimum of costumes and props--most of them made of laminated cardboard--is absolutely amazing.
It helps that Ferguson has such a fine, likable, well-rounded cast and a nice balance of singers and actors, all of whom clearly enjoy every moment onstage. Better yet, no one indulges in the sort of condescending overacting that has marred other, lesser shows. Instead, everyone exudes a particularly winning charm that goes a long way toward selling these energetic, cute, unpretentious, if sometimes silly and superficial songs.