The ABC’s of fun abound in ‘Schoolhouse Rock, Live!’

By Shawn Cunningham
© 2016 Telegraph Publishing LLC


From left Gagner, Canada, Walker, Morris, Spivey, Seltzer and Malachowski. Photos by Tim Fort.

Anyone who raised a child and had access to television may have at least a passing knowledge of Schoolhouse Rock. But, for the uninitiated, Schoolhouse Rock was a collection of energetic, three-minute animated musicals about various academic topics that were broadcast between children’s cartoons on ABC every Saturday morning from 1973 to 1985 and from 1993 to 1999.

These were fast paced explanations of concepts in math, grammar, science, American history and civics so you have to wonder, going into the show, what plot would tie all these subjects together.

Well, Tom — played with wide-eyed innocence by Ben Walker — is a new elementary school teacher who — just hours away from his first day of class — is either having a nightmare or a full-blown existential crisis. At the ringing of an alarm clock, he appears on stage in his underwear and bathrobe carrying a briefcase. He’s nervous and afraid, so he turns on the television to calm himself. But instead he’s confronted with six people coming out of the TV singing and dancing around him and only making him worse.

The six explain that they are there to help him and that they are every person, place or thing he’s ever known. In other words, nouns.

Tom is skeptical, but by the third number – which happens to be Three is a Magic Number — he allows himself to be taken on a guided tour of the subjects he’ll be teaching. OK, so it’s barely a plot, but it’s enough.

And now it’s time to unpack my adjectives.

Each year, Weston’s Young Company (known as YoCo) performs the season opening show aimed at kids. The YoCo is made up of students from conservatory programs studying musical theater. This year’s group includes two 2015 YoCo veterans (Michael Canada and Michael Seltzer), and as a whole it is not only talented, but charming and engaging. Even before the preview performance began, the performers were engaging the 65 kids in the audience with casual chit-chat, kids’ games and imaginary ping-pong, priming them for the show.

The show’s 14 songs are not just sung but danced and YoCo member Javier Spivey’s nearly non-stop hour of choreography serves the production well. The dance numbers are clever and engaging, keeping the songs exciting, but not getting in the way of the lessons.  Spivey plays the nervous bow-tied nerd ‘Javier’ to perfection and solos with Rufus Xavier Sarsparilla, which explains that pronouns are important because “saying all those nouns over and over can really wear you down.”

Touring the solar system with Interplanet Janet.

Touring the solar system with Interplanet Janet.

Transformed from blonde to purple hair, and dressed in a solar system hoop skirt Emily Kristen Morris does a star turn as Interplanet Janet.  The skirt is the highlight of costume designer Jennifer Salter’s work and the number gives lighting designer Cory Pattak a chance to pull out all the stops.

The set is a riot of colorful objects hung on pegboard and available to be taken down as props for the musical numbers. “Noun” and “verb” are spelled out in lights on the wall, but this is not entirely successful since they were barely noticeable with all the other lighting.

Erica Malachowski, who does a terrific job with the “noun” solo next takes “Preamble” in which the cast sings the first 52 words of the Constitution while writing them on a white board. Although the cast energetically performs it, it slows down the show a bit, sending some young members of the audience into full-scale fidget. The boys in front of us were climbing around on their chairs until the ensemble shifted to an interactive run through the multiplication table for the number 5 with Michael Canada, who picked up the pace and had kids shouting out what were long ago known as number facts.

Seltzer, whose stage presence suggests mischief and humor, takes the two best-known songs – Three is a Magic Number and Just a Bill and he has the singing chops to put them across powerfully. With a voice more suited to jazz than the “belt” style now so typical of musical theater, Renee Gagner was a pleasant surprise singing Sufferin’ Till Suffrage and Interjections.

Ben Walker as Tom is the team player who waits while the ensemble take their solos before delivering the grammatical punchline of the story in The Tale of Mr. Morton. Bringing nouns and verbs together he sings “Mister Morton is the subject of the sentence, and what the predicate says, he does.”

Music Director Kent Baker on piano keeps the tempo up-beat and enjoyable.

Director Susan Haefner, herself a talented musical theater and dramatic actress, brings all of this young talent together in a frenzy of activity that keeps a roomful of kids rapt to the point that when “Bill” explains that if he does not get out of committee on his journey to becoming a law “I may die,” one concerned child shouted “What?”

Schoolhouse Rock, Live! is an hour of fun and music even if you don’t have a kid to take. And who knows? You might learn something.

Schoolhouse Rock, Live! runs through Sunday, July 10 at the Weston Rod and Gun Club, 982 Route 100 in Weston. The show is one hour with no intermission. For information and tickets visit or call the box office at 802-824-5288.

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