When television's number one rated toddlers hit the road with Rugrats: A Live Adventure, Animation World sent Ron MacFarlane to see Nickelodeon's stage show.
"Rugrats...Rugrats...R-U-G-R-A-T-S!!" Tiny voices chanting around me tumbled in counterpoint to the clamorous theme music from a massive sound system as we filed out of the Oakdale Theater in WallingFord, Connecticut on the evening of February 10, 1998. At that moment several thousand ankle biters and their adult custodians were responding to spectacle. The curtain had just rung down on the fifth and last night of Nickelodeon's Rugrats - A Live Adventure, the stage production of its hugely popular animated television series that began its 50 city U.S. tour in this south-central Connecticut city. Every performance was sold out. Despite being a NPR kind of guy, I actually had a rather enjoyable time. Although I can get caught up in a rerun of Joanie Loves Chachi, Bob Edwards and Alex Chadwick represent what inspires me. So, I was surprised to find, in spite of some criticism, that I responded positively to the show.
Transitioning to the Stage
I'd seen the animated version of Rugrats enough to know who the characters are and the path that each episode will most probably take. I was curious to know how successful the transformation to live-action would be. True to form, the show was, as it is each afternoon on television, a wonderfully puerile adventure such as a visit to some terrifying place, like the back of a closet, up into the attic or somewhere under the porch. The cast was all represented: brave and outgoing Tommy, ever aggrandizing and egomaniacal Angelica, perpetually frightened Chuckie, level-headed Susie and wisecracking twins, Phil and Lil. In addition, the parents, Grandpa and neighbors all had lines and cameos. In this instance, the timorous and diffident Tommy leads a toddlers' expedition into the basement where he invents a wand that can change inanimate objects into living things. Tommy dubs it "the People-ator!" Soon after Tommy brings a variety of common household tools to life (watch for the winsome flashlight) for a lively song and dance. Then, Angelica seizes control of the device and reveals her determination to make herself "Princess of the World." Thus the quest to regain the "People-ator" and deliver Angelica's daily comeuppance is under way.
To the palpable delight of the children at this true-to-life rugrats convention (average age appeared to be about five), the much larger-than-life infant and toddler entourage paraded the stage to the music and songs of Mark and Bob Mothersbaugh, composers for the television series and members of the rock group DEVO. The combo rock and rap rhythms blasted from the sound system and seemed to set some teenys to dancing in their seats...and some to covering their ears. Throughout the two acts of the presentation, the music, from my perspective, was loud and disconcertingly unremarkable; the dancing, however, was excellent. Some of the numbers, "Girls who are Assertive" and "If I Were a Princess" principle among them, were outstanding due to unique costuming and terrific unison dancing. The dancers were well rehearsed, wonderfully animated and skillfully blocked on the stage. The sheer number of songs and their length took up well over half the show and seemed to tax the attention skills of most of the children as well as the adults. However, as soon as a character approached the stage to engage the crowd the response from the kids was wild. Chuckie's pleas for help from the audience to stop Angelica's megalomaniacal march toward world domination elicited much more excitement and response than any of the music, for which applause was tepid at best.
The voices of the main characters were the same as those used in the television series. Recognizable to the kids, the voices clinched the transformation from television to theater. I just wish, however, there had been some way to have created movable mouths. The fixed grins and chagrins soon became annoying.
The Production Values
Although rather low-tech in total, the set was at times grand (to wit, the arrival of the dragon, Reptar, in the finale) but at most times cumbersome. The skewed construction of the stage furniture and many other props, seemingly done to exaggerate the point of view of a toddler and to mimic the animation from which it was designed, reminiscent of Popeye the Movie. The moving of some props into the action and off again was handled unabashedly by stage hands dressed in bright yellow! Here, not only did I have to suspend my disbelief, I had to jettison it altogether as grown people, as large as the Rugrats, came on stage. The back lighting of enormous stage screens with actual scenes from the animated series tended to help. It provided a direct link between stage and television and created endless visual variety. High above the stage and translucently visible through the screen were the musicians and stage characters, who for one reason or another, were not involved in the action, but were planning to be soon.
The costumes were splendid. They were colorful and remarkably like their animated counterparts. Moreover, the cast seemed to move freely and lithely in them, in spite of the enormously exaggerated head each carried around. Chuckie's movements were uniquely fascinating to watch; his rump a veritable workshop of heaving and froing, and this was not lost on the adults. This was obviously tied into an effort by the writers to provide some humor directed at the adult audience to balance the "poopyhead" brand of jokes for the small fry.
Tiny Tots React
Although the show does not seem to be Broadway bound, how did the kids like it? Cassandra, 3, from Derby, Connecticut, thought the first act was too long and her mother complained that the intermission was too long (half an hour). Sue Moretti from Gilford, Connecticut brought along Jeffrey, 5, Nick, 3, Skye, 5 and Colby, 7, whom she said tuned in and out through the show, but generally had a great time. Tasha from New Haven brought two year-old Davaun who waved his light stick along with hundreds of others in the auditorium and squealed with delight, pointing his fingers at the stage and looking back at me to see if I was watching.
I was Davaun, I was.
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Ron MacFarlane is a long time creative writing teacher at the Forman School in Litchfield, Connecticut. A Furman University alum, he has been a cartoon/animation nut since the first Saturday morning of March in 1952.