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Rick Sparks directs 'Schoolhouse Rock Live Too!'

July 15, 2009|Karen Wada

Rick Sparks and "Schoolhouse Rock"?

That may sound like an odd match, given the director's other hits include several very adult comedies, "They Shoot Horses, Don't They?" and the falling-out-of-love story "Divorce! The Musical."

In fact, Sparks tried to beg off when Greenway Arts Alliance asked him to stage "Schoolhouse Rock Live Too!," a perky one-act inspired by the educational TV cartoons that first popped up in the 1970s. "I told them, 'I don't think I'm your guy,' " he says. "I had no affinity for it."

What changed his mind? "I resisted so much I knew I needed to do it. It was a challenge."

Sparks, 51, enjoys defying expectations. In nearly two decades as a local theater director, he's made a habit of taking chances -- or persuading others to take a chance on him. "I'm an initiator," he says. "I don't like being bored."

His latest gamble seems to be paying off. "Schoolhouse," which opened in May at the Greenway Court Theatre, has been extended into August, having delighted audiences with what The Times called "pop-quizzical frolic."

"Rick had never done a family show, so we weren't sure he'd be interested," says Whitney Weston, Greenway's co-artistic director. "But having worked with him before, we know he's very theatrical and creative and his attention to detail is extraordinary."

For all ages

"Schoolhouse Rock Live Too!" ties together music from the series with a thin plot in which diner owner Nina and her friends fight to save her struggling eatery. It's not the most substantial piece, but 20-plus songs about math and grammar do offer a good test of Sparks' staging skills: "I kept thinking, 'How can I jam-pack each number and fill it with fun, gimmicks, multimedia?' "

He "unlocked" the play by remembering it was for adults as well as children. "I told the cast we weren't doing Strindberg or Tennessee Williams, but we still had to invest in every moment."

Sparks has added a twist here, a wink there. For instance, Nina (Lisa Tharps) delivers a red-hot rendition of the multiplication ditty "Naughty Number Nine." Producers contemplated cutting the song, he says, but he managed to keep it in. "I'm sure I drove Greenway crazy from time to time."

"Rick is tenacious," Tharps says, "but he's very generous and supportive. He also can bring out the colors you don't necessarily see."

"He's an actor's dream," says Lowe Taylor, who played the wife in Erin Kamler's "Divorce! The Musical," which closed last month after a five-month run at the Hudson Mainstage Theatre in Hollywood. During auditions, she recalls, Sparks asked everyone to improvise and play multiple characters. "Usually," she says, "for musicals you sing 16 bars and it's 'thank you.' "

Doing it his way

At the first rehearsal, Sparks encouraged Taylor and Rick Segall, who played her husband, to improvise a history of how their characters came together -- even though the show itself depicted the ways they tear each other up. "He knew the back story would help people see all the joy and love before everything fell apart," Taylor says.

Even as a kid in the San Fernando Valley, Sparks was putting on plays -- and pushing boundaries. In junior high, he got in trouble for entertaining a parents' meeting with girls doing a bump-and-grind. ("It was a song from 'Sweet Charity.' ")

After graduating from high school, Sparks performed in small theaters in America and abroad and on cruise ships before joining "Cats" on Broadway. While on tour in "Les Miserables," he decided it was time to stop acting and start directing. In 1987, before moving back to L.A., he saw Charles Busch's Gidget sendup, "Psycho Beach Party," in New York. He told Busch he wanted to direct the show in California. "He asked if I was a big director and I said 'no,' " Sparks recalls. "He laughed."

While performing one last cruise gig, Sparks staged "Beach Party" and sent a videotape to Busch. With the writer's blessing, he put on a small West Hollywood production that won raves.

To earn money for future projects, Sparks took an ensemble part in the 1993 U.S. premiere of "Sunset Boulevard" in Los Angeles. He also co-wrote, produced and directed "Highballs Ahoy!," a 1996 parody of cruise ship disaster films, which Variety deemed "a delicious interactive extravaganza."

A few years later, Weston and Pierson Blaetz, Greenway co-founders, invited Sparks to tour Fairfax High's old social hall, which they were converting into a theater -- the perfect venue, as it turned out, for "They Shoot Horses, Don't They?" Sparks co-wrote and directed an award-winning version of Horace McCoy's novel about Depression-era marathon dancers. "It was a huge event -- 24 or 25 actors -- and we staged it with arena seating so the audience felt as though they were at the La Monica Ballroom on the Santa Monica Pier," he says. "As they entered, they could hear waves and meet apple sellers in period dress."

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