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arts3Cabrillo Stage musical ‘Schoolhouse Rock Live!’ maximizes the fun of cult TV touchstone

If you grew up watching Saturday morning cartoons in the ’70s or early ’80s, you’ll love Schoolhouse Rock Live!, the first production in Cabrillo Stage’s summer musical series. The source material was not a cartoon series in the traditional sense (like, say, Rocky and Bullwinkle, whose theme song is referenced in the pre-show audio montage). Instead, the original Schoolhouse Rock was a series of Public Service Announcement-type animated shorts that played in between the long-format cartoon series on Saturday morning TV, from 1973 to 1985.

The shorts were educational. In each two- to three-minute segment, funny cartoon characters would feed lessons disguised as catchy songs to a vast audience of unsuspecting children. There were multiplication songs and grammar songs, and memorable ditties about science, history, social studies and civics. And because little kids are sponges (especially when it comes to songs), these tuneful lessons helped propel an entire generation through their first 12 years of public school.

In the early 1990s, someone got the bright idea to repackage some of this material into a live-action stage musical revue, and Schoolhouse Rock Live! was born. The vivacious Cabrillo Stage production, directed and choreographed by Andrew Ceglio, proves to be a terrific vehicle for introducing a new generation to these often irresistible songs. With its 25-member ensemble cast, it’s also a great property for introducing young performers to the stage. The show was produced in cooperation with Ceglio’s Spotlight Youth Conservatory, which provides professional theatrical training to local performers age 10 to 17.

Ceglio lets them strut their stuff in this show. The book (by Scott Ferguson, Kyle Hall and George Keating) features Tom (Bobby Marchessault), an elementary school teacher so nervous about his impending first day teaching a new class that his psyche divides into six separate personae, to help with all the worrying. To calm down, he turns on the TV and finds an old episode of Schoolhouse Rock—and, instantly, Tom and his five alternate selves get in the groove, performing 21 vintage songs, abetted by a cast of capable kids.

Among Tom’s alter egos is the appealing Matt Myers as George, singing a sweetly rhapsodic “Three Is A Magic Number” and “My Hero, Zero.” Kara Jonsson has a great voice and lots of verve as alter ego Dori (singing “The Preamble,” among many others). Makai Hernandez is terrific as alter ego Joe, especially in the tongue-twisting pronoun song, “Rufus Xavier Sarsaparilla.”

Alexi Baker is a crowd pleaser as alter-ego Shulie, notably in her goofy-sweet rendition of “Unpack Your Adjectives.” Kiana Hamzehi is commanding as alter ego Dina, leading the company in a robust ode to the 19th Amendment, “Sufferin’ Till Suffrage.” And the six of them make a fabulous sextet in the ’50s doo-wop-inspired “A Victim of Gravity.”

Among the greatest hits of the TV series, the funky, bluesy “Conjunction Junction” gets a bang-up treatment complete with trains. And ensemble member Siena Stearns delivers the classic “Just A Bill” with plenty of moxie, as a bill “stuck in committee,” who dreams of becoming a real law—as timely a song as ever, given the current Congress. These songs are so rooted in pop culture, it’s no wonder half the audience was singing along on opening night.

This production makes full use of the show’s cartoon origins. Skip Epperson’s simple set is a geometric backdrop whose components turn around all through the show to reveal colorful graphic images highlighting the songs. Fanciful trains, boats, and animal masks figure in many songs, and Maria Crush’s wardrobe of pastel shirts for the grown-ups and primary-colored tees for the kids convey a sense of fun without getting in the way of Ceglio’s fleet and frisky pacing.

The Cabrillo Stage production of ‘Schoolhouse Rock’ plays through Aug. 8 at the Crocker Theater, Cabrillo College. For more information call 479-6429, or visit PHOTO: STUDENT ACTORS Matt Meyers, Makai Hernandez, Bobby Marchessault, Kiana Hamzehi, Kara Jonsson and Alexi Baker in Cabrillo Stage’s ‘Schoolhouse Rock Live!’

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