Lawrence Toppman

‘Schoolhouse Rock Live!’: A whole lotta love of learning

“Schoolhouse Rock Live!” tears up ImaginOn for four weekends, courtesy of Children’s Theatre of Charlotte.
“Schoolhouse Rock Live!” tears up ImaginOn for four weekends, courtesy of Children’s Theatre of Charlotte. Donna Bise

I was in college when “Schoolhouse Rock!” hit the airwaves in 1973, embodying educational concepts in jaunty songs. So I have no idea how iconic it was to children who learned about conjunctions and constellations, multiplication and multiple houses of Congress, from short musical films aired through 1985.

I got a hint from enthusiastic elementary schoolers watching “Schoolhouse Rock Live!” at ImaginOn Thursday morning. “Learning can be fun!” proclaims newbie teacher Jonathan (Jonathan Hoskins) midway through the show; I couldn’t tell you how much the bouncing youngsters learned, but I guarantee they had fun.

The five singers onstage and the four-piece band behind them emerge from Jonathan’s mind as he emerges from bed on his first day of school. They show him how he can share basic concepts with students while rejuvenating him every few moments with musical Red Bull. Lyrics fly at us fast and hard, and the final number (where Jonathan sings about subjects and predicates to show he has the teaching spirit) is the only gentle tune.

No one in the 1970s expected these four-minute songs to be strung together into a 75-minute concert with minimal dialogue. The energizing but occasionally overwhelming result is a mini-arena show where even slower numbers eventually go uptempo.

Director-choreographer Michael Bobbitt plays to performers’ strengths. Tommy Foster tap-dances through “Conjunction Junction;” Matt Carlson, a kind of informal emcee, snaps through the rapid-fire pronoun number “Rufus Xavier Sarsaparilla;” Tracie Frank and Dominque Atwater contribute warmth and innocence respectively, while Brianna Susan Smith’s smoky alto underpins weightier moments. The three women blend well for a song about suffragettes.

The lyrics take us to a now-distant time, when people dropped dimes in “record machines,” and to an idealized world: Congressional representatives debate bills thoughtfully and at length, and an executive weighs both sides before signing. (Can someone send tickets to the N.C. legislature?)

But the “school” element never outweighs the “rock” element. The fog machine, bubble machine and strobe play their parts, projections appear on screens alongside and behind the performers, and we clap and dance.

“Elbow Room,” performed fervidly by musical director Mike Wilkins and his quartet, even provides a Springsteen-style singalong, though The Boss might not have written a number celebrating white people’s Manifest Destiny.

Mostly, the show reminds us of the glorious sense of discovery that comes when you master the first level of any subject, from the times-three tables to proper use of interjections. That feeling was a blast in 1973, and it always will be.

Toppman: 704-358-5232

‘School House Rock’ Live

When: Friday-Sunday through May 1. There’s an adult night April 23 at 7:30 p.m.

Where: ImaginOn, 300 E. Seventh St.

Tickets: $12-$26.

Details: 704-973-2828; ctcharlotte.org.

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