Friday, November 25, 2016

Elmo’s Super Fun Hero Show

The four ducks that the Count counts backwards
with Jessica Brown as Super Sparkleheart

Big Bird

The Count

Cookie Monster about to share his cookie,
while Elmo holds his Kindness Certificate

Elmo’s Super Fun Hero Show by Sesame Workshop, produced and toured in Australia by Life Like Touring (Au).  At Canberra Theatre Centre Playhouse, November 22, 2016.

Writer/Director: Theresa Borg
Creative Producer (Australia): Luke Gallagher
Designers: Craig Bryant – Composer (original songs) and Sound Design; Choreographer – Katie Ditchburn; Set – David Bramble and Luke Gallagher; Lighting – Dan Evans; Costume – Peri Jenkins.

Super Sparkleheart – Jessica Brown
Sesame Street characters – Shaylee Murray, Many Vugler. Kaisha Durban, Dylan McEwan, Pauly Maybury, Kelly Hamilton, Chloe Gibson.

Reviewed by Frank McKone
November 22

I was surprised to see that the very young children (3 to 5) that made up the main part of the audience were not as excited throughout the show as I had expected.  After all Sesame Street began the year my youngest was born (1969) and I knew the attachment she and her sister had to the tv show.

I have also reviewed other stage versions of children’s tv and books, including Dora the Explorer, and several Garry Ginivan productions.  What was happening, I wondered?

Though the music was very danceable, as the characters on stage demonstrated admirably, I only saw one three-year-old bopping around in time – with her mother’s encouragement.  Other children and their adults were not responding to the music or even the story with any great enthusiasm.  What a shame, considering the highly worthwhile educational message about kindness, and the clear intention to teach emotional intelligence.

So why did this happen?  If you watch the (probably illegal) Youtube [] showing Sesame Street Episode 3857 you can see the problem.  The stage show creates a completely different atmosphere from the tv show.  From the reactions around me in the theatre, I think the adults were disappointed that the warm, gently humorous mood they have always known, which drew them in as it does their children, became a fast-paced razz-a-matazz show coming at them off the stage.  The children responded with cheers each time a new character, like the Count or Big Bird appeared, and the first time Elmo and friends burst into action, but Super Sparkleheart, despite Jessica Brown’s skillful playing of the role, did not engage them fully.  I noticed, in fact, that many of the children were talking to each other or their parents rather than being thoroughly focussed on what was happening on stage.

I thought back to Dora the Explorer – Dora’s Pirate Adventure (reviewed for the Canberra Times September 24, 2008).  That storyline was a very conventional adventure searching for a hidden prize.  It was superficial educationally, but the mass of children in the enormous Australian Institute of Sport arena were dancing in the aisles to the upbeat music and following the story step by step.  Elmo’s Super Fun Hero Show has a searching for a hidden prize story with a deeply important educational theme, but the format turned Sparkleheart into an explicit top-down teacher of the abstract concept of how to be kind. 

This killed the experience instead of enlivening the learning as happens on the tv Sesame Street.  Psychologically, the stage show uses extrinsic teaching/learning instead of developing intrinsic learning through emotional engagement.  I think in Australian culture the ‘hype’ of a ‘super fun hero’ show is suspect because it bombards the audience rather than welcoming them in.  This show seems to me to be at odds with the long-standing principle of the Sesame Street Workshop, which is from our perspective unusual in American culture.  Sesame Street on tv approaches our ABC TV’s Playschool, whose theme song is an invitation to ‘Come inside’, not too far from finding our way ‘to Sesame Street’.

Trying to understand where the Super Sparkleheart role went wrong, it was in the ending of each character’s story of seeking treasure that was the clue.  Good learning means being motivated intrinsically to be successful.  There is no reward for being kind except for internalising wanting to be kind for its own sake – because it feels and is good.  But in this Hero Show, Super Sparkleheart sets up the wrong motivation: if you find the hidden treasure you are rewarded with a certificate.  Even though she says everyone can be kind, the final message is about extrinsic motivation: you’ll get a certificate if you do what you are supposed to do.

Oddly enough, this competitive aspect in real life causes stress, and in the story the children are taught to handle this by learning diaphragm breathing or ‘breathing with your belly’.  Bellies are funny for little children and I had thought this would be great audience participation with lots of laughter (which also relieves stress).  But no.  Sparkleheart makes this a ‘very serious’ thing to do – and most of the adult audience, if they did it at all, did it quite half-heartedly, while the 3-year-olds were just too young to understand. 

So finally I worked out that the problem for this show also arose from the technical approach to the staging.  Good children’s theatre, with effective learning through modelling which provides intrinsic motivation (a major Sesame Street principle) has to be performed by actors with time and flexibility of approach, so that they can communicate with the children and respond fully to the children’s ideas and feelings.  Recently this was demonstrated wonderfully by a local company, Centrepiece Theatre, in Peter Best’s Goldilocks and the Three Bears (reviewed here January 24, 2016), and many years ago by Monica Trapaga in Monica’s House (reviewed in the Canberra Times, May 1996).

As I have been given to understand, Elmo’s Super Fun Hero Show had a pre-recorded sound track, including all the voices of the Sesame Street characters, singing and speaking, voiced “for this Australian produced show” by “the original cast of the Sesame Street TV series in New York City earlier this year”.  The only actor singing and speaking live was Jessica Brown as Super Sparkleheart, while the other performers (who were completely hidden inside their costumes) danced and moved to the sound track – like a kind of karaoke or ‘air’ performance.  Although the sound operator in theory could delay the next bit of track if Jessica had taken extra time to work with her audience, in practice the show ran strictly to time and speed encouraged very much by the over-the-top nature of the music – which controlled the characters’ movement and to which Jessica had to sing, dance and somersault.

So I must conclude that I am disappointed in Elmo’s Super Fun Hero Show because it didn’t feel like Sesame Street and didn’t teach like Sesame Street, even though the theme of learning how to be kind is such an important lesson we all need to remember.

[Reviews referred to can be accessed at including those from before 2010]