If you grew up in the 70’s or 80’s, you probably spent more than a few Saturday mornings tuning your television set to one of three channels that aired Saturday morning cartoons, and occasionally caught one of the educational animated shorts known as Schoolhouse Rock!
I think I’ve had the song “Just a Bill” stuck in my head ever since I was old enough to comprehend that I wasn’t just watching a singing napkin from a restaurant called Capital Hill that just happened to be named Bill.
When I attended opening night of Little Theatre of Virginia Beach’s production of Schoolhouse Rock Live! last Friday, I was ready to take the “Conjunction Junction” back down memory lane and be reminded that music is the most powerful tool to teach kids that “Knowledge is power!” There was non-stop smiling while watching an energetic ensemble of all ages bring those animated memories to life.
Director Garry Manasco embraces the campiness and corniness of Schoolhouse Rock! and has enlisted a team of designers and performers who are having just as much fun as the audience. His assistant director, Jeff Seneca, also serves as set designer and has decorated the stage with large illustrated figures from the animated shorts combined with multi-colored hopscotch patterns and oversized building blocks and rulers surrounding a large screen with the word Zenith underneath to suggest the largest tube television ever created.
In the printed program, the setting is described as “Tom’s Living Room,” but it looks more like the interior of a child’s dreams and imagination — and it works.
The lighting design from Alex Mason adds even more color shining down on the smiling faces and colorful costumes designed by Kathy Hinson, filling the stage with all the colors of the rainbow, and making things even more dreamlike with numbers like “Figure Eight” and “Interplanet Janet.” The VIP of the production team for a show like this, however, is prop designer Jamie Wuori, who had to prepare countless items to enhance each of the twenty-one production numbers. Illustrated flipboards used “Rufus Xavier Sarsaparilla” certainly added to the animated spirit of a show based on cartoons, and there were all kinds of numbers flying around during “Three is a Magic Number.” At one point a few performers were even armed with water guns. The rapid succession and appearance of different props and constant costume changes energized the show and expressed the kind of creativity and dedication of a top notch production team.
The cast consists of eighteen enthusiastic performers, singing and dancing their way through all these numbers under the music direction of Evan Lambert and choreography by Karen Buchheim. Backed simply by Andres Magalhaes on piano and Bryce Perry on drums — who are both hidden behind the large screen on stage — the musical numbers are as straight forward as they were in the animated shorts, though there are some nice harmonies added to “Figure Eight” that I don’t remember from previous productions that I’ve seen. The opening number, “Verb: That’s What’s Happening,” seemed to have a rough start, but that may have just been opening night jitters from a youthful ensemble who didn’t take long to warm up into full force performance mode.
Standouts include Kai White (also a scene-stealer as a gospel singer in earlier season entry Violet), who once again demonstrates some outstanding vocals in numbers like “Sufferin’ Till Sufferage” and “Interplanet Janet”; 14 year-old Abby Reese Asimos establishing a sparkplug presence early on with “Unpack Your Adjectives” and lighting up the stage with every subsequent appearance; and Nick Richardson, who finds some great moments of humor with some nice choices of line delivery, and gets to don the largest costume piece as the titular character in “Just a Bill.”
The only real disappointment in this production of Schoolhouse Rock Live! is the fact that Little Theatre of Virginia Beach replaced the previously announced regional premiere of the new musical Hands on a Hard Body, based on the 1997 documentary film of the same name. LTVB has established a reputation of tackling musicals that are more modern and diverse such as Rent, Aida, Parade, Light in the Piazza, Violet, and last summer’s Young Frankenstein. The reason Hands on a Hard Body was cancelled is unclear, but replacing it with Schoolhouse Rock Live! seems oddly uninspired and uncharacteristically provincial.
In the 20 years since Schoolhouse Rock! was turned into a stage production, there have been scores of shows that haven’t made their way to a Virginia Beach stage that deserve an audience. Not to say that there’s anything wrong with putting on a show just for wholesome fun, but being the replacement for the more interesting and obscure choice of Hands on a Hard Body (which earned three Tony nominations three years ago, including Best Musical Score for Trey Anastasio from the band Phish) feels like a 180 in show planning, as if the title were just randomly drawn from that large hat the conductor wears during “Conjunction Junction.” Luckily, the trend of mounting exciting new musicals will resume next season with Olympus on My Mind and Side Show.
While the decision to present Schoolhouse Rock Live! may be a bit of a head scratcher considering the caliber of musical selections patrons have been accustomed to seeing presented by Little Theatre of Virginia Beach, there’s no denying that it’s a fun time to be had for the whole family. And while a lot of musical productions are starting to run on the longer side, it’s refreshing to enjoy a lean 90 minutes of lively entertainment. The adults will enjoy the nostalgia, and the kids will love it and just might learn something. So take a break from the summer heat and enjoy some Schoolhouse Rock!
The show runs to August 7. For more info or tickets, click here.
Ed Note: The orchestra for Schoolhouse Rock Live also includes Eddie Lawhorn on bass. Prop Designer Jamie Wuori is also credited as Assistant Set Designer. Sorry for leaving that out – no shade, we love you guys! – and thanks to the crew at LTVB for scooping up that fumble.