It’s been said that the baby boomer experience was characterized by sex, drugs and rock ’n’ roll, while the Generation X equivalent was HIV, neoconservativism and new wave music. But Gen Xers—anyone born roughly between 1963 and 1978—also had Schoolhouse Rock, a series of Emmy Award-winning Saturday morning cartoon spots that ran on ABC television from 1973 to 1985. The segments were reportedly the inspiration of an ad exec, who figured that if his son could remember with facility the words to popular songs, a similar approach to learning would cram those multiplication tables into his head.
It’s unknown whether Schoolhouse Rock raised IQs or had a demonstrable effect on scholastic achievement, but the cartoon was revived as a stage vehicle in Chicago in the early ’90s by a group of enterprising (and no doubt nostalgic) Xers, who entertained sold-out houses in the basement of a vegetarian restaurant. Entitled Schoolouse Rock Live!, the show played around the Windy City for a few more years before finally having a successful off-Broadway run in 1995.
Now, Gen Xers have children of their own, which means they can bring them to Nashville Children’s Theatre, where a revival of Schoolhouse Rock Live! is in for a lengthy engagement past New Year’s. It should offer families plenty of opportunity to consider the show as a potential holiday season destination.
The energetic cast of six probably has a few marginal Gen Xers among them, whose own memories perhaps help in recapturing the spirit and style of the original TV franchise.
All the same, their efforts meet with mixed results.
Schoolhouse Rock Live! is essentially a revue, which kicks off when a neophyte schoolteacher (Patrick Waller) wakes up to face his first day on the job. He’s anxious, of course, so he does what anyone in his position would do: he turns on the TV. Suddenly, five members of the Schoolhouse Rock cast jump from the screen to his living room, where they commence to plot out for him an entertainment-driven curriculum that he can share with his pupils.
Musical numbers come at us fast, with prerecorded tracks thumping out an eclectic score of pop, rock, folk and jazz, with lyrics designed to instruct the audience in the parts of speech (“A Noun Is a Person, Place or Thing,” “Unpack Your Adjectives,” “Interjections”); math (“Three Is a Magic Number,” “Zero, My Hero”); the human body (“Do the Circulation”); civics (“The Preamble”); inventions (“Mother Necessity”); and the like.
An older child with good powers of concentration (and some background in the subject matter) might comprehend some of the information more readily, but it’s more likely that the youngest ones will just sit back and savor the glitz. It’s surely uncertain what, say, a 6-year-old will derive watching a number about women’s rights (“Sufferin’ Till Suffrage”) or one concerning the procedures of Congress (“Just a Bill”).
There are awkward moments in performance, and in this regard it becomes difficult to separate the players from the material. The actors are committed but don’t always seem comfortable ratcheting up all that faux enthusiasm. Waller, Jenny Littleton, Marin Miller and Brooke Bryant soldier on with general success. So too does D. Richard Browder, who’s also the show’s choreographer and has put the cast through lively if relatively undemanding dance steps. The weakest link is Ross Brooks. Brooks—recently appointed the new artistic director of People’s Branch Theatre—is an affably handsome actor who’s had a lot of serious work this year with Nashville’s major companies. He’s only a passable singer, though, and he doesn’t look at home doing musical comedy.
Probably the best numbers are the famous “Conjunction Junction,” in which the ladies render a frothy bit of Andrews Sisters harmonies, and the big showstopper, “Interplanet Janet,” in which set and lighting designer Scott Leathers gives us a swirling light show that fills the entire theater with entrancing visuals. Patricia Taber’s costumes call to mind Gen X style, in particular Bryant’s punked-out, purple-haired look, replete with knee-high Doc Martens.
With the exception of a few moments of restlessness, last Friday’s busloads of schoolchildren seemed to stay with the music, the colorful set and the occasionally glittering lights. It seems less likely that the youngsters were able to grasp all the grammar, arithmetic, social studies and anatomy lessons that were thrown their way in 70 minutes of nonstop singing and dancing.