Jazz lovers and other cultists were likely the only ones to catch last month’s fleeting obituary for singer-composer Blossom Dearie, who died at 84. She had a small but utterly recognizable voice that combined all kinds of contradictions. It was sometimes cute and sometimes creepy, and often you couldn’t tell if it were emanating from a little boy or a little old lady.
Dearie’s enduring contributions to mainstream American pop culture were her performances of the haunting “Figure Eight” and “Unpack Your Adjectives” for the Saturday morning animated segments collectively known as Schoolhouse Rock! These three-minute cartoon videos taught history, civics, science, and grammar from 1973 to 1985, with clever mnemonic lyrics and snappy folk-jazz-funk arrangements. They taught a generation (including me) to recite the preamble to the U.S. Constitution in a swaying singsongy way.
“The Preamble” and “Unpack Your Adjectives” are just two of the showstoppers featured in Theatre Arlington’s outstanding revival of Schoolhouse Rock Live! Jr. Scott Ferguson, Kyle Hall, and George Keating adapted the TV edutainment tunes into a 1993 revue that opened in the basement of a Chicago vegetarian restaurant. In the years since, the show has been piling up sold-out receipts around the country and inspiring unusual covers by diverse artists. (Etta James’ “Sufferin’ Till Suffrage?” Killer. Better Than Ezra’s “Conjunction Junction?” Dubious.)
The only voices that Theatre Arlington uses are those of its 30-member cast, whose ages range from eight to 18. Taped background instrumentals raise the specter of a Schoolhouse Karaoke! by adorable urchins preening for their indulgent parents. Director Todd Hart seems aware of the potential horror, so he let his costume and movement designers go wild with wry, adult-friendly kitsch that heavily references the 1970s and ’80s, which takes the young performers out of their own lives. Hart then rehearsed the kids — whose musical theater talents are up and down the ability scale — until they understood the songs and could deliver them with confidence and clarity. As a result, monstrous ‘tween egos are made subservient to a manic-glitzy mood and to songs that still beguile with their ability to convey important ideas with spare wordplay.
The setup for Schoolhouse Rock Live! Jr. is this: Young schoolteacher Tom (the wiry Tyler Martin, whose gift for pratfalls sends grade-schoolers into giggle fits) is nervous on the morning before his first class. He is visited by a “hallucination” of characters from the Schoolhouse Rock segments of his childhood to give him confidence. And so in impressive spinning, strutting, high-kicking style, the other 29 cast members pour from various points of the theater to re-enact the animation and perform the tunes. Costume designer Tina Dale works with a pop-art, “gumball machine explodes” aesthetic, using bright primary-colored stripes, flannels, and solids along with a theater trunk of cool prosthetics and accessories: floppy fake dog ears and furry bear claw gloves, towering fuchsia beehive wigs, oversized sunglasses, glittery gold vests. Each costume choice slyly comments on and energizes the song.
For instance, can “Conjunction Junction” really be performed as anything but a bump-and-grind routine? A trio of feather-boaed girls do the shoulder shake and hip sway as two station masters coolly explain how they’ve got ” ‘and,’ ‘but,’ and ‘or’ / They’ll get you pretty far.” “Three is a Magic Number” is a hilariously choreographed routine in which the multiplication table is explored Busby Berkely-style through the revolving backs of glittery numbered sports jerseys. “Unpack Your Adjectives” and “Interjections!” use big cartoony signs that pop up to exclaim the “hairy” and “scary” of “that was one hairy, scary bear!” Kudos to the “Interjections!” kid who keeps a relaxed rhythm while singing: “They’re generally set apart from a sentence / By an exclamation point / Or by a comma / When the feeling’s not as strong.”
“I’m Just a Bill” and “Elbow Room” manage to address the sausage-making of congressional legislation and the land fights of Manifest Destiny, respectively, while keeping it all family-friendly. The astronomy lesson “Interplanet Janet” is an elementary school pageant as directed by Federico Fellini. The full cast crowds the stage with glow-in-the-dark galactic mobiles, shiny tinsel wigs, space outfits, and psychedelic, expressionistic lights. The song features what appears to be the youngest cast member as “that solar system Ms. from a future world.” As the planets and their positions are explained, she sails through the cosmos carried aloft by the long arms of two teenage male cast members. Her fearless toothy grin is all she needs for space exploration.
Theatre Arlington does a flat-out splendid job of balancing nostalgia with fresh ideas, and joyful silliness with timing and discipline. Above all, they seem determined to make sure all of the knowledge in Schoolhouse Rock Live! Jr. registers. The only caveat here is that you’ll need at least a passing familiarity with the original tunes to really enjoy the show. The good news for fans: Empirical evidence suggests that the Schoolhouse Rock! canon has not reached its shelf life. More than half of the sold-out crowd at last Saturday’s matinee were children, and they cheered, laughed, and clapped like the Me Decade was upon us again.