Anyone attending the “Super WHY! Live: You’ve Got the Power!” show at the Lowell Memorial Auditorium May 9 may want to warm up their vocal cords.
Audience participation is not only welcome but expected during this live adaptation of the musically inclined PBS Kids animated series about a group of super-powered fairy tale characters.
“I joke that it’s ‘Rocky Horror Picture Show’ for preschoolers,” says “Super WHY!” creator Angela Santomero with a laugh, on the phone from New York, where the cast was busy rehearsing to hit the road to bring the colorful cartoon characters to the live stage.
Santomero, who previously worked on “Blue’s Clues,” had envisioned doing a live version of the series from its inception. “When we did ‘Blue’s Clues’ in Radio City Music Hall and being able to write those shows and be with your fans is just the most rewarding thing,” she says of watching the words she’d written come alive onstage. “And for the kids it’s our version of Disney World, they get to hug our characters and be part of that world. And I don’t really want to adapt, I want to create what that world looks like as an immersive experience.”
SUPER WHY! LIVE: You’ve Got the Power!
The live performance will feature many of the characters from the literacy-minded series including star Whyatt Beanstalk (younger brother of Jack), Pig (the littlest of the three), Red (the little girl with the riding hood), Princess Pea (of uncomfortable mattress fame), and Whyatt’s loyal golden retriever Puppy. Each character has a superhero alter ego and attendant power that is related to reading or spelling. For instance, Pig becomes “Alpha Pig” and has “Alphabet Power” and Puppy becomes “Woofster” and has “Dictionary Power.”
“The overarching story is all of the characters want to figure out who has the greatest superpower in the world, and each one of our characters of course thinks that they do and they demonstrate why,” says Santomero. “And the fantastical element of making your dreams come true is the undercurrent of the story.”
Of course in animation, almost anything is possible; but in the real world, working with live actors, pulling off some of Santomero’s own fantastical dreams took help from director Glenn Orsher and production company S2BN, who previously worked on productions ranging from “Yo Gabba Gabba! Live!” to the Broadway musical “Rock of Ages.”
So when “Alpha Pig” realizes he can use his letters to build the word “boat” and the word transforms into an actual boat, or “Wonder Red” dreams of flying high on a trapeze, the show makes it happen.
“Glenn and S2BN were so great about letting us just dream and then figure out how to do it,” says Santomero. “You want to really create and work within that space and we didn’t want to do a skip-and-wave type show, where you literally just see the characters, hear the music, and they’re waving at you. We want to have a little bit more of that [theatrical] sensibility and vision for the story.”
Plus, Santomero promises there are plenty of fun visual elements, from video projections to “bubbles and confetti and the stuff that just makes kids so excited.”
In addition to singing along with songs familiar from the show, Santomero enlisted Jack Antonoff of the Grammy-winning pop band fun. to write songs for the live show and its accompanying soundtrack.
“I like to say he was a big fan of ‘Blue’s Clues’ and that’s why he did it,” she says with a laugh, noting that Antonoff had a long-standing relationship with “Super WHY! Live” director Orsher from working on “Yo Gabba Gabba!”
With songs like “Rock Star Princess,” Antonoff split the difference between the show’s familiar crayola Casiotone sounds and his own band’s earworm-y radio hits.
“For me it’s about the kids,” says Santomero about crafting the sound and look of the show. “I just want to make sure that they get what they expect to get. I always think of it as like a spinoff TV show. There’s nothing worse than watching something you loved growing up and then all of a sudden it’s completely not what you remember. So it has to have that sense that ‘This is my show’ and he did it in such a way where it is ‘Super WHY!’ but it’s ‘Super WHY!’-plus.”