Plenty of parents who grews up during the ’70s remember watching “Schoolhouse Rock” episodes on TV. “Schoolhouse Rock” rolled out in several series, each featuring a different subject children studied in school — including math, grammar, science and government.
A musical called “Schoolhouse Rock Live!” that’s based on the idea by David McCall and the television series created by George Newall and Tom Yohe imagines various alter egos of a new teacher named Tom coming to life through a television set as Tom frets over how to prepare for his first day in the classroom.
Fountain Hills Youth Theater is presenting “Schoolhouse Rock Live! JR.,” an adaptation of the musical meant for younger audiences, through Sept. 9. It includes just 11 songs and runs less than one hour, making it a good choice for little ones who haven’t yet developed the appetite or attention span for longer works of live theater. During the Sunday matinee performance, I sat next to a man seeing the show with his 4-year-old grandson. He told me they’ve been enjoying musicals together since the boy was just 2. He’s eager for his granddaughter, just 18 months old, to get a wee bit older so she can tag along too.
Sunday’s audience was filled with preschool- through elementary-age children, and several parents too. It was hard to tell who enjoyed the show more. Though some of the songs cover topics like blood circulation and parts of speech that little ones haven’t yet studied in school, the brightly-colored sets and costumes, plus upbeat songs, make the musical perfectly enjoyable for kids who’ve yet to crack open a textbook.
Those familiar with musical theater will recognize the work of Lynn Ahrens — who partnered with Stephen Flaherty to write “Lucky Stiff,” “Ragtime,” “Seussical” and other musicals — in several “Schoolhouse Rock Live! JR.” numbers. Ahrens wrote words and music for “A Noun is a Person, Place or Thing,” “Interplanet Janet,” “Interjections,” “Elbow Room,” “The Great American Melting Pot,” “The Preamble” and more. Watching Fountain Hills Youth Theater perform those last two, both reflections on America’s greatest strengths, nearly left me teary-eyed.
For all its touching moments, the Fountain Hills Youth Theater production of “Schoolhouse Rock Live! JR.” is also tremendously funny. The humor is wholesome in a “good, clean fun” sort of a way that’s hard to find in so many of today’s offerings for kids and families. Parents and children laughed throughout the performance, starting with the opening scene featuring teacher Tom decked out in a furry red robe and bunny slippers as he sits at his kitchen table feeling not quite ready to face the day. Tom is played by BASIS Scottsdale High School student Ryan Smith.
The cast also includes Ingleside Middle School student Mitch Arndt (George), Fountain Hills High School students Haylee Klein (Shulie) and Katie Male (Dina), Mesquite High School graduate Jessica Miller (Dori) and Patrick Moyse (Joe), who thanked several teachers but didn’t share the name of his school for the program. I especially enjoyed Miller’s vocals and Moyse’s comedic bent. There’s a large ensemble as well, including children and teens who look on stage like they’re working together seamlessly and joyfully without a hint of competition or self-aggrandizement.
“Schoolhouse Rock Live! JR.” is directed by Ross Collins with musical direction by Terry Temple and choreography by Rachel Barrett. Ross Collins designed the set, which has a wonderful retro rainbow vibe. Costume design by Carrie Grief features everything from white felt to shimmering gold polyester, makes fun use of bright colors and glow-in-the-dark elements, and has great attention to detail in pieces like button-covered suspenders. Kelly Jordan does hair and make-up, which includes a creative take on pigtails you can easily try at home. Eight members of the “youth crew” work backstage on everything from lighting to sound, their contributions noted in the program just like those of cast members.
Taking your children to see youth theater productions is always more pleasant when the shows you’re seeing entertain family members of all ages. That’s certainly the case with “Schoolhouse Rock Live! JR.” During Sunday’s show I saw both parents and children tapping their toes and clapping along. The theater is relatively small, seating is comfortable and the cast often performs within just a few feet of the front row. That makes it especially engaging for young children already wowed by the fact that the people they’re watching are kids instead of grown-ups. If asked to “Unpack My Adjectives,” I’d have to choose “family-friendly” and “feel-good” for this show.
Learn more at fhtaz.org.