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A campy regression orgy for adults

Musical education

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Pain and difficulty have no more place in American life than handicaps or inequalities, so only a few who enter McColl Family Theatre to absorb Schoolhouse Rock Live! will pause to question its root principle: "Learning should be fun -- it should be like a game!" Back in the early 1970s, of course, such thinking was revolutionary at ABC-TV, where the pathfinding series of three-minute learning nuggets was launched.

Fun learning amid the video wasteland was dispensed on the borderlines between the 27- or 57-minute cartoon programs that were the properly constituted geography of Saturday and Sunday children's programming. So a collection of 17 greatest hits from the Schoolhouse Rock series, rescued from the pabulum that once surrounded them, connected and concentrated into a single musical, should be irrefutable proof of their power as learning tools, right?

Let's not be that silly. At best, Rock Live! is a joyful, vacuous affirmation of how dopey the whole cartoon learning concept was in the first place. At worst, it's a useful gloss on why, educationally and economically, hard-working Asians are eating our lunch. My only genuine worry is that it took three writers -- Scott Ferguson, George Keating and Kyle Hall -- to create the flimsy tissue that connects this Schoolhouse medley together. I bet they had fun.

Once you discard the idea that Schoolhouse Rock Live! contains any educational nourishment -- and realize that it's intended primarily as a campy regression orgy for the grown-ups whom the original toons baby-sat -- then you can revel in the Children's Theatre production now at ImaginOn. The six onstage performers are a mix of actors (Nicia Carla and Mark Sutton) from the Children's Theatre stable, singing actors (Caroline Bower, Robbie Jaeger and L-Jae Levine) who have made their mark in musicals by multiple local companies, and a newbie (Kashanna Brown) with an impressive dance background.

You'll find it impossible to separate the singers from the actors and both those groups from the dancer. Showstopping singing and dancing are not the top priorities for director/choreographer Ron Chisholm. Here the golden rule is doo-wop unto others: Connect with kids and their quasi-nostalgic parents using rock, video, audience participation and all that jazz.

Sutton, as rookie teacher Mr. Morton, gets refreshers on fun-based education from TV characters who jump out of the screen and give him pointers. As authoritative educators or teacher mentors, they have approximately the same credibility as the Pointer Sisters, the Jordanaires or the auditioners in A Chorus Line.

So Schoolhouse Rock Live! is both fun and funny in ways that the original cartoons never could be -- to adults. Kids will often be electrified by what they see from the adults onstage, but they could be shocked by Mom or Dad sitting next to them, reacting to this medley.

Sutton and Jaeger draw one of the handful of tunes, Dave Frishberg's "Just a Bill," that can be legitimately viewed as a gem -- narrating the epic journey that a bill takes through Congress and the White House before becoming a law. Levine draws solo honors on the other prime original, Bob Dorough's "Conjunction Junction," with the most elaborate choreography this production can offer, complete with railroad cars carrying their "and" "or" "but" payloads.

"A Victim of Gravity" sounds like it was ripped off Happy Days, with another fine Jaeger solo, and "Interjections," seemingly the love child of Handel's "Hallelujah Chorus," boasts an energetic vocal from Brown. Bower is at her best in "Interplanet Janet," while Carla and her backups make "The Preamble" smack more of the Fifth Dimension than the Founding Fathers.

In this election year, Republican parents can especially rejoice in the abject educational poverty of Schoolhouse Rock Live! No child who doesn't see it will be left behind those who do. Rock on, Gen X, rock on!

James Gaffigan, the latest candidate for the prized musical director slot at the Charlotte Symphony Orchestra, was very warmly received by subscribers at last Friday's New World concert. In fact, I'd say he generated the most enthusiasm by any of the four conductors who auditioned for us during the 2007-08 season.

Musically, however, his results put him in second place on my scorecard with four more candidates still to be heard during the 2008-09 season. The roughest patch occurred at the outset of the evening when he led the orchestra in ballet excerpts from Idomeneo. Candidates to fill Christof Perick's shoes can really step in it when they follow our maestro's footsteps in Mozart or Strauss.

Gaffigan's way with Mozart lacked that last bit of sharpness we've become accustomed to with Perick -- along with a sprinkling of Viennese charm. Accents and loud passages were dispatched with the CSO's usual élan, and the fast passages had a satisfying bite. But the ensemble's attack on softer interludes came up short on sureness and precision.

The rest of the evening saw the ensemble rise to a higher level, first accompanying the florid Elmar Oliveira in Barber's Violin Concerto and then, after intermission, committing themselves wholeheartedly to Gaffigan's distinctively American reading of Dvorak's New World Symphony #9.

Brasses were beautifully blended throughout the early movements and brilliantly confident in the clarion calls of the final allegro. Principal soloists Terry Maskin on English horn and Hollis Ulaky on oboe brought a glowing tenderness to the largo, echoed by some exquisitely textured work from the strings.

Were it not for some shoddy work from the French horns, this performance might have eclipsed the New World at last summer's Eastern Music Festival conducted by the estimable Gerard Schwartz. At best, it was a toss-up: I heard better playing from the Greensboro band, better sound at the Charlotte hall.

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