THEATER REVIEW: Animaniacs Live

written by David Steffen

Animaniacs was a comedy cartoon show produced by Steven Spielberg that ran from 1993 to 1998, first on Fox, and then on the WB. It was set up as a variety show with several short skits per episode starring different casts of characters–the most often recurring being the Warners: Yakko, Wakko, and Dot who live in the water tower on the Warner Brothers studio lot.  The show was most known for clever and funny songwriting as well as humor that was meant to appeal to adults as well as children, often making jokes about Hollywood.

Animaniacs is back in the form of the live show Animaniacs Live.  Voice actor Rob Paulsen and songwriter Randy Rogel headline the show, with special guest.  You might not immediately recognize those names, but if you watched Animaniacs you’re already familiar with their work.  Rob Paulsen played the roles of Yakko, Pinky (of Pinky and the Brain), and Doctor Scratchandsniff–he has also done voice acting work for other cartoons, see his website for more information.  Rob Rogel wrote many of the songs for Animaniacs, including Emmy-winning “A Quake! A Quake!”.

We saw the show in Saint Paul, in a pilot showing on April 9th–the first official show was in La Mirada CA April 15th.

Looking at the product page for the La Mirada show I think that the production of the pilot may have been very limited compared to the full show that will be on tour.  What we saw had 2-3 people on stage and a piano, and a projector screen above the stage.  Rob Paulsen sang, Randy Rogel played the piano and sang, and with the special guest most often providing harmony.  The projection screen was used about twice during the show–once leading up to to the show, and once to show a song later on.  The La Mirada ticket page shows a symphony onstage, so it sounds like there might be quite a bit more going on in the official tour.

So, I don’t know how the full production affects the format of the show–maybe it’s the same general format, just with more musical performers.  The show that we saw alternated between talking for a few minutes about the show and then leading into musical numbers.  They sang some of the more well-known songs from the show, so you should be able to sing along with those.  They also included some alternate endings to songs that Rob Rogel submitted and was asked to change, as well as at least an entire song that didn’t make it on the show.  They also talked about the creative process, how a song goes from his composing studio to the screen, about what it was like to work on the show, about other projects they’ve worked on, and so on.

I love seeing voice actors whose work I know in person because it is so strange and exciting to hear the voice you know and love coming from a completely unfamiliar face.  For that alone the show is worth seeing, and the extra material like changed endings and cut songs and commentary make it sort of like a live show of DVD extras about the TV show.  If you liked Animaniacs, odds are good you’ll like the show.  If you’re not familiar with Animaniacs, but you like funny songs and live performances, odds are still good you’ll like the show.

One thing that wasn’t really clear to me from the marketing leading up to the show was:  is the show intended for kids?  We brought a child to the show, thinking that they would be performing the songs live while they projected the cartoons on a screen.  The show wasn’t really set up for kids that age–sometimes-long segments of talking between songs, and almost no showing of the cartoons.  Again, we didn’t see the full show, so maybe they use the projector more during the official run which would probably get kids more into it, but at least the version we saw it was difficult for a kid to sit through.

They also had a Q&A session after the show where they would take questions from the audience.  Which sounded wonderful, but we decided we needed to leave, rather than subject the kid to any more waiting.  I’m not sure if the Q&A will be a feature of all their shows or if they were using the pilot as a way to gather some more questions they might ask during the show itself.

I’ll be interested in seeing how the show does as a whole, and hearing what the full show is like that apparently has the live orchestra and etc.