HSRT takes audience to school with ‘Schoolhouse Rock’
HOLLAND, Mich.–It was the 1970s when Schoolhouse Rock first burst onto the scene, airing on Saturday morning television and then being revived on videos in the 1990s—turning academic subjects into catchy tunes that leave everyone smiling.
Hope Summer Repertory is capitalizing on that popularity with its presentation of “Schoolhouse Rock Live,” a show that rocks the Knickerbocker Theater for nearly 90 minutes, tickling the fancy of both adults and kids alike.
It’s a show with an ensemble that is energetic and enthusiastic, their youthful strength and talent shining out in every scene. They practically bubble and capture the feeling of cartoons while being entirely relatable.
The musical opens with Tom (Skye Edwards) being jarred awake by his alarm clock on his first day of teaching. A little natural nervousness transforms into a full-blown hallucination with parts of his personality becoming personified by the characters of Joe (Griffin Baer), Dina (Emily Hadick), Dori (Kierney Johnson), George (Matt Sena) and Shulie (Lea Sevola). They assure him he’ll be a great teacher and prepare him for the day by singing such Schoolhouse Rock favorites as “A Noun is a Person, Place or Thing,” “Sufferin’ Till Suffarage,” “Just a Bill,” “Zero, My Hero,” “Conjunction Junction,” and “Great American Melting Pot.” In all, they perform 19 of some of the best known songs of the collection of 50+.
Director Fred Tessler keeps his actors on the move—constantly dancing, constantly moving, often climbing stairs and wheeling set pieces around. One imagines the cast is exhausted after the show—or invigorated from the workout. His very clear vision for this show captures all the best of the cartoons while keeping the story moving in what is ultimately a jukebox musical.
Edwards isn’t nerdy, but he does have a splash of doofiness and a wholesomeness that screams “elementary school teacher.” He’s also just the kind of guy you want teaching your kids. He lets you know right away how much fun he is going to be. While the rest of the ensemble is singing “Verb: That’s What’s Happening,” he’s grooving to the screen, completely uninhibited and willing to play the role with all of its fun.
Each of the remaining ensemble had their own personalities, but what might be most notable about them was how much energy they had and how good they were at executing Chaz Arnett Sanders’ choreography. They are all adorable and have moves that are as fun as the songs they are singing.
Sevola’s Shulie is sweet and innocent and she gets to shine in such songs as “Unpack Your Adjectives” and “Figure Eight.” She also plays the bewitched ingenue when George declares that Zero is his hero. She finds just the right way to make Shulie stand out in a way that is perfectly natural for her, inviting the audience to adore her.
With a sharper edge, but still a winning personality, Hadick’s Dina had her special charm. She was encouraging to Tom. Like the rest of the ensemble, Hadick had a strong voice that sparkled with energy.
Johnson adopted a Western accent to match her cowgirl costuming. She was smart and sassy and perfectly led the crew in the rendition of “The Preamble.”
Sporting a fedora, Sena got to turn George into as much of a romantic lead as works for a G-rated Saturday morning cartoon. He got to romance the audience with “Three is a Magic Number” and “Zero, My Hero” and then play one of the most popular and memorable figures of Bill in “Just a Bill.” He evoked the image of such musical stock characters as Sky Masterson—cool and handsome.
Baer provided a Joe that sharply contrasted with George. He was laid-back and cool, sporting long locks and comfortable clothes. While constantly a strong member of the ensemble, Baer really strutted his stuff during “Rufus Xavier Sarsaparilla” proving that no collection of words was too challenging for his tongue to twist around.
And while the cast members put on a dazzling, fun show, the work of the crew was also pretty impressive. Sanders found choreography that perfectly fit each song, sometimes borrowing iconic movement from the original cartoons and other times creating dance that fit the space and the dancers.
Props Master Emily White Freeman made sure each song had fun support with everything from scarves to miniature cotton gins. She illustrated each number with clever pieces that the actors were able to get on and off stage quickly and integrate into their dance pieces.
This is also a show that made effective use of video, something highly appropriate for a musical about a Saturday morning cartoon. They didn’t resort to just showing the videos, but they did support many of the numbers with pictures, images and words. Media Designer Eric Van Tassell found just the right balance to imbue the show with electronic memories without distracting from the main action.
It’s a show that had high demands on its backstage crew, with each number requiring different props and sometimes alterations to costumes. It was sometimes a distraction that with the open, mesh style set, you could see the backstage people moving about and setting things up. This was especially an issue in some of the slower numbers when it got a little too loud back stage.
In the 40 years since the songs were composed, little has passed that make the songs outdated. After all, multiplication hasn’t changed nor has basic grammar. The “Great American Melting Pot” is more moving than ever with its talk of how immigrants have made our country what it is. It isn’t until the very end when there is a cringe moment in the “Interjections” song—a fun, upbeat way to end the show. With the exception of one verse that skates awfully close to rape culture for today’s comfort:
Though Geraldine played hard to get, uh-huh-huh
Geraldo knew he’d woo her ye-het
He showed his affection
Despite her objections
And Geraldine hollered some interjections…
Well! You’ve got some nerve!
Oh! I’ve never been so insulted in all my life!
Hey! You’re kinda cute!
It’s unlikely a kids’ show today would encourage a boy to keep pressing his affections on a girl who told him no.