Regional Reviews: San Jose/Silicon Valley
Going for a twofer, Michael Gene Sullivan and Eugenie Chan (book) and Ira Marlowe (music and lyrics) have placed their musical parody about the current presidential election within a high school setting. Not only does the resulting Schooled take particularly biting jabs at a certain blond-mopped, loud-mouthed Republican Party nominee (while not ignoring certain other, identifiable candidates), the writers also tackle current trends away from public support of schools and toward private academies, charter schools, and more and more corporate funding channeled into local schools. Along with a couple hundred others scattered on the lawn of Mitchell Park in Palo Alto, I got the double-edged set of pointed messages from the get-go.
Four students of Eleanor Roosevelt High School open the play with a beautifully sung alma mater in sweet, four-part harmony ("Roosevelt! O, Roosevelt!"), after which a perky class president rattles off announcements, including what parts of the school are currently closed due to leaky toilets. Arthur Quisdedo, School Board President, is looking for ways to shore up the under-funded public school and he thinks he has found the answer: LAVA (Learning Academy for Virtual Achievement). The purveyor of this corporation is one Fredersen J. Babbit who promises, "Only the efficiency of private enterprise can save public education." This is much to the horror of Ethel Orocuru, a teacher who still believes in using books to learn about history and what makes U.S. democracy work. She for one is highly incensed about Quisdedo's and Babbit's plan to discard school books (and eventually teachers) for LAVA's magic hand-held flat screen, a "Fort Knox ... where every fact they (students) need to know is in this little box."
Author of the best-selling book "School Is a Four-Letter Word," even Babbit is surprised at how fast Quisdedo allows him to take over the school district and to resign his post from the Board. ("I said efficiency twice and he gave me the entire district.") The vacancy leads to a hastily called election, and thus enters the parody's parallels to the current presidential election.
That the LAVA king (clearly a stand-in for Donald Trump), who clearly has disdain for smart women, is played by a woman is irony at its highest. Lisa Hori-Garcia provides a Babbit with the exaggerated moves and looks full of braggadocio we have come to know all too well. Why should we be surprised that Babbit's book contains a chapter titled "Is It Time to Build a Wall Between Our School and the School to the South" or that, once he decides to run for the vacant School Board President spot, his slogan is "Make our schools great again"? Ms. Hori-Garcia plays the Trump copycat to the hilt and spills out a slew of one-liners that some of us can only imagine may be thought, if not said by the current U.S. presidential candidate (e.g., "Capitalism is the highest form of democracy").
Joining the sudden election is a parent, Lavina Jones (Velina Brown), who also believes the current school system is no longer working and wants to bring more business-proven approaches to make things better for everyone, including Thomas, her son who seems to live more in a virtual rather than real world. She wants to help her son's future, but she has her own ideas what that future should and should not includemuch to his and his teacher's disdain. Lavina Jones is the Hillary Clinton of this race, and she is quite willing to partner with those who have money in order to better the school district according to her vision of what is for the good. Velina Brown is excellent as the very proper, smartly suited candidate who is full of promises and the facts to back them up.
With a head of tussled grey hair, a tendency to get on the soapbox to rant a bit, and a firm belief that students are the ones to change their own worlds, Keiko Shimosato Carreiro is Thomas' teacher Ethel Orocuru, the third candidate to enter the Board President race. With a burning passion and a non-wavering voice, she sings to her students in "Our American Government," "It all comes down to one thing ... you, only you" as she admonishes them to learn and exemplify the principles of the Founding Fathers. The fervor to make waves in all directions that Ms. Carreiro brings to Ms. Orocuru leaves no doubt that she is the Bernie Sanders of this scenario. (Ms. Carreiro also doubles as Babbit's evil, sexy secretary Tatianna, who eventually takes over Ms. Orocuru's job as teachera wonderfully sardonic bit of double casting.)
As the campaign progresses (including a clever three-some song, "The Campaign," where a rotating set of walls keeps revealing each would-be president making sung plugs and pledges to the electorate), Babbit's Roosevelt High changes to Roosevelt Academy and then to Babbit Academy. The opening alma mater ("Roosevelt! O, Roosevelt!) is twice reprised, becoming first more militaristic and then more fascist in tone and presentation. The welcoming announcements by class president Michiko (a second role played by Lisa Hori-Garcia) become more dictatorial, with her finally donning an ominous armband and Nazi-like uniform. Conditions worsen in other ways, as Lavina Jones's son Thomas learns (Rotimi Agbabiaka, also playing Mr. Quisdedo).
Throughout, this cast delivers Ira Marlowe's songs with voices that ring true and clear. Lyrics are too often somewhat bland and predictable and do not always do much to move the story forward. The better part of the parody is in the book and in the acting of the excellent cast.
The half-hour pre-show's music and the show's score are magnificently performed by Will Durkee (guitar and bass), Dominic Moisant (percussion), and Daniel Savio (keyboards and musical director). Keith Arcuragi and Taylor Gonzalez have designed a cornucopia of sound effects that the band members perform throughout that add to the fun and cartoon nature of the production. The cardboard-looking, cut-out, and colorful scenery that Jay Lasnik has designed for the small stage is nothing short of clever; and the tiny turntable of two wedged walls enables quick scene and actor identity changesespecially helpful given the double casting.
The San Francisco Mime Troupe does not just put on a show. They awaken their audiences to current situation of concern and make calls for action. The musical's title may refer to the changes some of the characters undergo (like Thomas or his candidate mother Lavina, the latter who seems to lean more left by show's end, learning from the proclaimed socialist Ethel Orocuru). The title could also be a declaration of what school life becomes under Babbit's plan (with "schooled" being likened to "jailed").
But I think the real intent is that we, the audience, walk away "schooled." This is not the normal happy ending we expect from musicals. The ending can be seen as a warning that the most unlikely outcome can in fact occur if we, the audience, don't get off our butts and do something to make sure that does not happen. Schooled, San Francisco Mime Troupe's 2016 contribution to its tome of political parodies, is the company's fairly simplistic, somewhat sophomoric, but totally serious red alert that this summer and autumn, there is work to be done before November 8.
San Francisco Mime Troupe continues its production of Schooled through September 5, 2016, at public parks throughout the Bay Area. For a full schedule of the mostly free shows (with a $20 donation suggested at play's end), please check online at www.sfmt.org.