Hope Summer Repertory Theatre excels at producing high-quality theater for young audiences that also appeals to adults. This season alone, their productions of Annie and Curious George have been delightful, and Schoolhouse Rock Live! falls right in line.
In fact, it very well may be the best of the bunch for those of a certain age — and I don’t mean kids.
I mean the Gen Xers who grew up with the rockin’ Emmy Award-winning Saturday morning cartoon series that taught us multiplication, grammar, science, and American history and government in our formative years in the late 1970s and early 1980s.
All the memorable songs true to that period are part of this lively, fun, colorful musical; but they’re performed by real, live singers, dancers and musicians, rather than cartoon characters, which keeps things interesting and ramps up the nostalgia with a bit of a kick. “Three is a Magic Number,” “Just a Bill” and “Conjunction Junction” are among the nearly 20 recognizable numbers in the show, all culled from the original television series started as a problem solving effort by an advertising executive who realized his son could remember pop song lyrics from the radio but not his multiplication tables.
As is often the case in musicals created from songs separate from a cohesive narrative (such as jukebox musicals), the plot here that strings them together is pretty weak. A new young teacher awakens on his first day of teaching in a panic. He turns on the television to calm himself down, and the old Schoolhouse Rock short films of his childhood appear. As do five colorful characters who represent facets of Tom’s personality: his romantic, goofy, sweet, cool and mature sides remind him who he is, what he’s capable of, and what he needs to do through the beloved songs.
But the plot hardly matters here. Partly because the songs are so fun, but mostly because they’re performed with such joy and gusto.
Skye Edwards is an utterly lovable Tom. He’s performed in all but two of HSRT’s shows this season, and in each role, the way he moves is remarkable. He’s an intuitive dancer and kinesthetic performer regardless of the part he plays or if dancing is central to it. And with Tom, his emotions are as clearly communicated and wide-ranging as the variety of moves he busts, from step-ball-change to a Swan Lake parody to the robot (which is squeal-inducing from audience members of every age). He’s phenomenal.
And the rest of the cast nearly matches his energy and skill. Dina, the mature side, is played soulfully by Emily Hadick. She’s remarkably bluesy, especially in “Sufferin’ Till Sufferage,” and “Conjunction Junction,” and puts her obvious classical ballet training to excellent use. Kierney Johnson’s Dori, the goofy side, is a playful powerhouse of a singer and dancer, and brings the country twang to “A Noun is a Person, Place or Thing.” Lea Sevola as Shulie, the sweet side, has a stunning vibrato; Matt Sena has an especially strong falsetto in the doo wop “A Victim of Gravity” as George, the romantic side; and Griffin Baer is fun as cool Joe.
Alex Thompson supports all the performers with excellent music direction, and plays keyboards along with Alec Johnston on bass and Tom Parks on drums with huge heart.
Director Fred Tessler has created a highly entertaining show that is lean if not minimal and yet feels enormous because of the meaning and memory the songs carry and the tremendous talent of the very capable cast.
And it’s educational in fundamental ways that may exceed what’s available in public schools before long, and it connects the audience members to each other regardless of age. Young children clap and cry out to songs about the Constitution and the solar system and adverbs, while their parents sing along and remember what it was to be that age, in a remarkably different time and place.
Schoolhouse Rock Live!
Hope Summer Repertory Theatre
Through August 10