Producer/Director Steven Spielberg may have been responsible for some of cinema’s most searing human dramas but like most people in Hollywood he is essentially a kid at heart and never was this more evident than in the early 1990s. The man who gave the world such heavy fare as Schindler’s List, Amistad and Saving Private Ryan was also responsible for creating An American Tail, The Plucky Duck Show, Casper and probably his most successful animated show, The Animaniacs. Debuting in 1993, The Animaniacs blurred the line between children’s show and adult comedy. It featured three animated siblings (Yakko, Wakko and Dot) who lived in the water tower over the Warner Brothers Studio and engaged with characters both real and imagined. The show had an irreverent tone reminiscent of the classic Looney Tunes (one of the episodes is labeled The Chalkboard Bungle after the 1955 Sidney Poitier film The Blackboard Jungle) and featured a galaxy of memorable characters including a buxom blonde nurse (Hello Nurse), a trio of Italian American pigeons (The Goodfeathers) and a giant mouse with an evil genius companion who’s determined to take over the world (Pinky and the Brain). Like the old Looney Tunes it often goes way back on its references, and in one particularly memorable thirty second span it evoked both Edward G. Robinson and Richard M. Nixon. The Animaniacs ran for five years, inspired a movie and in 2016 it streamed on Netflix, where it blossomed and found a whole new audience. Ironically, the success of the show on Netflix drew such renewed interest that in 2018 their competitor Hulu and executive producer Steven Spielberg announced they were bringing the show back again for two years, starting in 2020. All of which brings us, in a roundabout sort of way, to the marvelous “Animaniacs in Concert”.
One of the qualities which made the original show so immensely popular was its inclusion of catchy original songs. The Animaniacs would sing about anything and everything, from mathematics to the weather to nations of the world and they didn’t need a whole lot of logic to set them up. Now Rob Paulsen, (the versatile actor who plays Yakko, Pinky and Otto Von Scratchansniff) has teamed up with Emmy winning composer Randy Rogel, (one of the original songwriters), and taken the act on the road. And what an act it is! An eye popping, foot tapping, absolute gem of a show which leaves you grinning from ear to ear. Even if you don’t know Animaniacs, even if you don’t own a television, the manic energy and unbridled charisma of these two insanely talented artists will sweep you away. With Randy at the piano and Rob basically doing stand up, they run through the history of The Animaniacs and their roles in the development of it, overlapping each other and finishing the other one’s thoughts as if they’d been doing the show for ten years. There are men who obviously love what they do, and despite a smattering of healthy cynicism at the industry as a whole, they consider themselves incredibly lucky to be where they are. More than that, they seem legitimately bowled over and incredulous at the other one’s talent, and that’s not hard to understand. Randy Rogel is a marvel at the piano, invoking the skill of a George Gershwin with the playfulness of a Chico Marx. His tunes are infectious and hummable and by the end of the night it’s not a matter of which song will stay in your head but how many. It’s the lyrics, however, which impress the most. Whether it’s trying to learn the lingo of Hollywood through “Variety Speak” or surviving a Los Angeles tremor in “A Quake, A Quake” the inner rhymes and hyper intelligent references makes you want to hear the song three or four times to truly appreciate it. (One of the lyrics to this last one is ‘Whose fault? Whose fault? The San Andreas’ fault. Cause Mr. Richter – can’t predict – they’re kicking our as-phalt.”) Kids, this is not your grandfather’s cartoons.
Randy is modest but personable and engaging and extraordinarily gifted. Yet more often than not he plays the straight man to Rob Paulsen, setting him up for the punchlines. This seems only fair as Mr. Paulsen is a force to be reckoned with. A modern day Danny Kaye, his fast talking but intelligible delivery is truly what makes the songs work. It is one thing to hear the quick pace of a cartoon character rattle off more than two hundred countries in about ninety seconds, as happens in “The Nations of the World” (set to the tune of the Mexican Hat Dance), it’s another thing so see it live. Perhaps the most memorable song to come from The Animaniacs collection, Paulsen effortlessly flips through the tongue twisting lyrics as Rogel sets the pace on the piano, the audience holding their breath as the tune gets faster and faster. By the time Paulsen reaches the final verse (“Monaco, Lichtenstein, Malta and Palestine, Fiji, Australia, Sudan!”) the applause is instantaneous and deafening. To date Rob Paulsen has voiced over 250 animated characters. Besides the work he does on Animaniacs he is also both Raphael and Donatello on Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Carl Wheezer on Jimmy Neutron and the title character in The Mask: Animated Series. Yet for all his success in animation he seems so at ease doing the concert, so comfortable, that one gets the feeling that had he chosen the stage for his life’s work he’d have been terrific at that as well.
Animaniacs in Concert is a tough marketing sell. Adults may stay away for fear it is a children’s show; kids may be hesitant to attend anything which is ‘a concert’. That would be a mistake on both parts. This is a show that people of all ages will enjoy.