Class Clowns

How did you respond in school when you were told by the teacher that the day's learning was going to be "fun"? Did you imagine that you'd be entertained by Spandex-clad song-and-dance specialists? Were sing-alongs what you envisioned when a math lesson was on tap? No, even though education and entertainment can at times be virtually indistinguishable, the chances are slim that you learned about good government by watching an event that was part civics class and part American Bandstand.

Then again, did you ever believe that as a contemporary theatergoer, you would attend a performance based on a children's television cartoon from the 1970s? Americans' love of nostalgia aside (Nick at Nite is still going strong), who among us could have predicted the surprise success of an off-Broadway production called Schoolhouse Rock Live!? More to the point, who cares?

Apparently a lot of people do, including scores of Denver-area schoolchildren: Midday performances of the piece (which resurrects the former ABC-TV animated series) have been entertaining them by the busload for some time now. Encouraged by that success, The Theatre Group's production is now playing on weekend nights at the Theatre on Broadway.

Under the clever direction and choreography of Nicholas Sugar, the energetic cast (Emmitt Brewer, Amie Lillard, Doug Rosen, Kirsten Stiff, Mary Turbitt and Brian Upton) enacts a cavalcade of 21 musical numbers that are intended to instruct as well as entertain. There's "Lolly, Lolly, Lolly," featuring three salesmen who hawk "-ly" endings as part of a crash course in adverbs. "Just a Bill" chronicles the course taken by a fledgling piece of legislation in our nation's capital. And "Interplanet Janet" takes a humorous look at the solar system.

Evidently, the show's adult audiences are the same folks buying all those compilation albums of TV theme songs, and the program addresses that interest by inviting us to "please sing along if you want!" to the bouncy tunes. Sometimes that's a better alternative than listening to the singing on stage, which reveals a score that's occasionally out of its performers' range.

The dancing, however, is another matter. Sugar's choreography has a tendency to resemble aerobic-exercise routines, but it's always fun and sprightly. Led by veteran dancer Stiff, who executes high kicks and splits with the agility and precision of a cheerleader (she's dressed in a skintight top and miniskirt with black bicycle shorts underneath), the show is often visually interesting. Teenage boys would be happy to learn any subject from her.

Schoolhouse Rock admittedly has the potential to inspire teachers and parents who've had difficulty encouraging children to learn, and that's a worthwhile enterprise. There are worse subjects to study than the fundamental few included in this 100-minute musical.

But why present it as a form of theatrical entertainment for mainstream audiences, other than to add to the compost heap of the trendy and nostalgic? The answer, it seems, is that a theater company seeking to expand its audience base has decided to offer entertainment for all tastes and interests--also known as appealing to the lowest common denominator.


Schoolhouse Rock Live!, through November 23 at the Theatre on Broadway, 13 South Broadway, 860-9360.