Where the last Schoolhouse Rock was staged more as a musical revue, the newer, fresher version is an homage to, well, who knows what. But what comes to mind is a cross between Devo and Cirque du Soleil. The terrific ensemble cast -- Missy Koonce, Michael Andrew Smith, Dustin Stephen Cates, Milton Abel II, Angela Wildflower Polk and Julie Taylor -- and the inspired designers treat the material with a respect for their audiences of all ages and boundless gusto that virtually snaps, crackles and pops.
The actors, led by Ray Ettinger as their teacher and piano accompanist, are on a field trip to a planet strewn with the colorful detritus of pop culture. An island (designed by Megee) serves as the set's combination ballast and big toy chest. It's festooned with games, stuffed animals and snacks such as Rice Krispie treats, around which the cast dances, romps and roller skates.
Each song is a thickly disguised homework assignment -- and so much fun it's hard to fathom that the lessons are good for you. There are, for example, the odd numerical properties of the number nine as revealed in "Naughty Number Nine," sung with a Diana Ross diva-ness by Polk, who's accompanied by clacking croquet balls. To teach multiplication tables involving the number four, the troupe visits a zoo full of quirky four-legged creatures, such as a camel made of a suitcase and a bear with a lamp-shade collar.
Other subjects kookily conquered include economics, with a catchy pop-country number by Koonce and Smith called "Dollars and Sense," as well as adverbs and physiology. Although the "Body Machine" number about the digestive system gets awfully near a verse about elimination, "Them Not-So-Dry Bones" is a delightful salute to osteology using black lights and a neon skeleton to create a jigging X-ray.
Filling out the band (which sometimes drowns out the actors) are Brian Hunter on drums and Todd Wiseman on bass. Andrew Chambers' makeup, costumes and hair prove he's a triple threat even Diana Vreeland couldn't touch. Art Kent's lighting design includes some of his most inventive touches in memory, from a revolving smattering of red stars that shoot all over the house to a bouquet of bulbous globes wrapped in netting and suspended from the ceiling. David Kiehl's sound design adroitly keeps up with all the finely controlled chaos.
Ultimately, Abel's character could be reviewing the show himself when he says upon disembarking, "This is such cool junk."
Paul Stephen Lim, the director and KU Conger-Gable professor of English, began by casting two actors in the role of Tom: the young Tom, who constantly retreats from his mother's shrewish hovering by going to the movies; and the older Tom, remembering the story from a gay bar in Amsterdam. Lim rationalizes the odd casting by saying, "Most productions assume that no more than a few years have passed between 1939, when Tom leaves his family members, and the time he tries to explain why he left." Here, the distance is more than thirty years.
Lim says that making Tom overtly gay isn't all that shocking. "It is no great secret that Tennessee Williams was gay and that this play is very thinly disguised autobiography," he says. "So there is no reason why we cannot show what Williams was really up to at this point in his life."
At the last public performance before the show went into hibernation for its October return, half of Kaye Miller's set represented the modest Wingfield apartment. Stage left was the sparsely populated bar (including a marvelous floor-to-ceiling chandelier made of booze bottles wrapped with twinkling lights) and its piano player.
Featured in the cast were Aron Carlson as young Tom, John Younger as the older Tom, Amy Devitt as Amanda, Jacqueline Grunau as Laura and Jeremy Auman as the Gentleman Caller. Five other actors portrayed shadowy denizens of the bar who, when they weren't dancing with each other, listened to the play unfolding to their left like a mute Greek chorus.
Though splitting Tom into his younger and wiser selves worked quite well, the gay bar thing was a bit of a conceit. At one point, when Laura reminds Amanda that she's "crippled," the bar patrons let out a collective "aww" -- as if Williams' words and Grunau's fine performance weren't evocative on their own. The guise was ultimately as distracting as Devitt's one-dimensional performance as Amanda -- an acidic gargoyle, for sure, but not so relentlessly psychotic.
And it seems that absent (or well-hidden) were two lines in which Amanda refers to a "colored boy." Politically correcting Tennessee Williams should be taboo, like adorning a Picasso model with a matching eye.