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Friday, July 11, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 77.0° F  Mostly Cloudy
Arts

THEATER

Laboratory Theatre's Schoolhouse Rock Live!: Wonderful material, uneven execution


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It turns out that I feel quite protective of the Schoolhouse Rock! songs, which is probably why I was disappointed with several of the numbers in Laboratory Theatre's production of Schoolhouse Rock Live!

I hold those songs near and dear (like many in my demographic) and probably owe my eventual mastery of multiplication tables to Multiplication Rock, my grasp of our legislative process and the 19th Amendment to America Rock and my understanding of the parts of speech to Grammar Rock. Amazingly, all of that information was transmitted painlessly to me during the 1970s between Saturday morning cartoons and ads for Honeycomb cereal on ABC.

I figured it would be hard to mess up those great (and good for you) songs, but Saturday's matinee felt under-rehearsed and was chock-full of technical problems -- missed lighting cues, audible backstage chatter, forgotten lyrics, fumbled props and sight gags that were often too fleeting to register. But the show runs through March 20 at the Bartell Theatre, so I imagine that many of these glitches will get sorted out.

Members of the sparse audience were invited to take part in the production and sit on stage. (Luckily my daughter shares my phobia of interacting in performances.) Some of the young guest stars relished the opportunity while others were more reticent. I was needlessly worried about that element -- having kids participate in songs without much direction or rehearsal -- but it went quite smoothly. The cast and crew were the ones with struggles.

Drew Wolff has the best voice in the cast, and when he found his bearings in "Three (Is a Magic Number)" he was a delight. He also did well leading "Zero, My Hero" in a shiny superhero costume, and in "Figure Eight," his gorgeous tone made the opening of that song, which has always seemed sort of somber, really melancholy and lovely.

Another standout in the cast was Nick Barsuli, who has a relaxed and likable stage presence and a nice voice. He very capably helmed "The Tale of Mr. Morton" (a good reminder about subjects and predicates) and "Rufus Xavier Sarsaparilla" (helpful tips about pronouns), and he made a charming conductor in "Conjunction Junction," which helps us get a handle on joining clauses and phrases. My daughter's favorite was Liz Stattelman-Scanlan, who led "A Noun is a Person, Place or Thing" and was an enthusiastic cheerleader in "Interjections!" Alissa Taylor is a better actress than singer, but was quite plucky in "Unpack Your Adjectives."

Videos by Rob Matsushita accompany many of the songs, and there are some that stand alone. The "Preamble" video boasts a wide array of political guest stars, including Mayor Dave Cieslewicz , a charismatic Chief Justice Shirley Abrahamson, Sen. Herb Kohl and Rep. Kelda Helen Roys (who can really belt out some lyrics). The video for "I'm Just a Bill" was shot in the interior of the Capitol and has a homespun charm to it, as well as Rep. Tammy Baldwin in a guest spot.

Some numbers felt flat, particularly "The Great American Melting Pot" and "Interplanet Janet," in which the participating audience members were given inflatable planets to hold up at key moments. The stage was almost totally dark so I thought, Why bother?

However, things picked up for the last four songs. The cast seemed to have gotten into a groove, and choreographer Jillian Adams and director Michele Gerard Good did their best work. Good is also a cast member who, in "Sufferin' Till Suffrage" and "Lolly, Lolly, Lolly Get Your Adverbs Here" had a take-charge attitude but a not always reliable singing voice.

The material for the show is wonderful, so here's hoping things get smoothed over and that in future performances, those 70 minutes doesn't feel as long as they did on Saturday afternoon.

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