Monday, October 20, 2008

Schoolhouse Rock Review

City Circle - Despite being an overall extremely uneven evening of theatre, there are enough good moments in City Circle's production of Schoolhouse Rock Live! to make it well worth seeing.

Let's talk the difficulties first. Part of the problem is the show itself. By randomly putting a series of songs together with only the barest conceit of a story line, the script creates the possibility of a strong segment being immediately undercut by a weaker segment.

You can divide the show into the Grammar Rock songs, the Multiplication Rock songs, the Science Rock songs, and the America Rock songs. That's not just me coming up with a classification system - that's how they were originally broadcast and how they're packaged on the DVD set.

Of these, the Grammar Rock and Multiplication Rock songs are the best, in large part because events of the past 35 years haven't changed the fundamental meaning of the songs. On the other hand, the America Rock songs are dated, quaint, and more than a little earnest. The Science Rock songs were never that good to begin with.

Let's take some specific examples. "Three Is A Magic Number" is one of the best songs in the production, and City Circle's staging of the song does justice to the song. Michael Stokes has a strong lead vocal. The stark lighting, using a dark orange filter, sets the scene perfectly. (Indeed, Will Brown's simple but effective lighting design is first-rate all throughout the show, a study in how to use a minimalist lighting approach for maximum effect.) Finally, the choreography doesn't overwhelm the ensemble, something that can't be said about many of the segments.

Unfortunately, this is immediately followed by "Mother Necessity." The main problem here is a song that talks about the importance of inventions such as the cotton gin and the sewing machine at a time when a personal computer is almost a required household appliance. The song was written in 1976 - the advancements in science and technology since that time are enormous. The production doesn't help things, though - the blocking and choreography are frenetic and out of control, and the vocals get lost.

The other main problem with the show comes from the decision to expand the cast from a handful of performers to over thirty people. While this works to ensure a larger, friendlier audience, and this production is no exception, it also works to ensure a poorer production. There are more than a few weak voices in the cast, and we hear too much of them.

But there are also some very strong voices in the cast, but we don't get to hear enough of them. Kehry Lane was great, with a beautiful voice that was easily heard. Sami Wendell, easily the second best performer onstage after Lane, was woefully underused. Jeremy Ping, Chris Carpenter, and the aforementioned Michael Stokes all turned in the same fine work they're known for in the local theatre community.

Then there's the strong songs. I'm still singing the strong songs: "Lolly, Lolly, Lolly", "Just A Bill," "Ready or Not," the under appreciated "Tale of Mr. Morton," and perhaps the best segment of the evening, "Unpack Your Adjectives." All of these brought me into the production, humming and singing along. These segments are what I think of most as I look back on the production, and they are the reason the show's worth seeing.

--David Pierce

David Pierce is a four-time past president of the Iowa City Community Theatre. He has acted, sung, directed, and worked backstage for far too many local productions to mention. He is a writer both by trade and inclination, with law and journalism as an educational background.

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