Go for the Nostalgia

The men and women who wrote the lyrics to Schoolhouse Rockin the mid-'70s had a nefariously influential effect in shaping the mental processes of a shitload of impressionable kids. So there was a definite element of nostalgia at work when I learned the Costa Mesa Civic Playhouse was staging Schoolhouse Rock Live!

I enter the theater as one of only a handful of men—and the only one who isn't chaperoning some kind of kid. The audience is bursting with eager children screaming, laughing, giggling and burbling incessantly. But I am a professional. I ignore the withering gaze etched upon the infant face of unspoiled innocence staring deep into my eyes from the chair in front of me and commit to the moment.

Lights go down; kid turns around. Show starts. Adult humans begin walking out of a cavernous hole in the back wall that's supposed to be a TV set. The actors are perky, bright-eyed, bushy-tailed. In their 20s and 30s but acting like eight-year-olds.

I want to leave.

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There's this guy, Tom, I think, who's a schoolteacher, but he's worried about his first day at school. Somehow, that's sparked all these memories from his childhood into sentient life, and they're going to remind him that learning can be fun!

I need to leave.

The company launches into "Verb: That's What's Happening." I like the band. It's a three-piece led by Stephen Hulsey on keyboards. It's groovy and toe-tapping, and regardless of how dismal the book of this show is, the music and lyrics of these tunes do kick ass, albeit, eight-year-old ass.

Onstage, there are grown humans skipping, leaping, holding up trains, unpacking their adjectives and gleefully delighting this endearingly undiscerning audience. Though the actors are very enthusiastic and can, for the most part, carry a tune, I desperately wish that another director and/or company had tackled this and thrown in a bone or three that would go over the kids' heads and hit the adults.

However, after a few more songs about nouns and numbers, something ugly happens. "Mother Necessity" is a five-minute song-and-dance number about the spirit that fueled the Yankee ingenuity that created such life-altering inventions as the cotton gin, the airplane, the steam boat, the telegraph, the automobile and, the last thing that is praised, the factory. It's an unvarnished, unapologetic ode to the joys of capitalist invention, wonderfully propagandic in a grade-school way and filled with the same kind of overbearingly red-white-and-blue whitewashing that elementary-school textbooks used to be filled with—and maybe still are.

Sure, this is justa children's musical, but come on. It's old news by now that this same good-old-fashioned Yankee ingenuity has produced a self-serving, disposable culture. Schoolhouse Rock Live!may simply be keeping "Mother Necessity" faithful to its original presentation in the "innocent" '70s, but hearing the song again now, all grown up, just filled me with bile.

There were a bunch of other songs in the first act, but I didn't pay attention (although one uppity number about women's suffrage seemed to be there to counter the patriotic excess of the aforementioned). I didn't stick around for the second act, even though I'd miss my favorite tune of the bunch, "Conjunction Junction." I think I'd seen enough.

Schoolhouse Rock Live! at Costa Mesa Civic Playhouse, 661 Hamilton St., Costa Mesa, (949) 650-5269. Thurs.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 2 p.m. Through March 14. $12-$15.

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