Tuned In

A Knight's Tale: Fear and Teething at Backyardigans Live

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The cast of Tale of the Mighty Knights, sadly overlooked by the Tony Awards. / Nick Jr.

Despite having been the father of American children for nearly seven years, I had somehow managed to escape that singular phenomenon known as the adapted-from-a-TV-cartoon stage show. That streak ended when I was offered tickets to take the family to a Madison Square Garden performance of The Backyardigans Live: Tale of the Mighty Knights, and could not find it in my heart to decline the offer without ever mentioning it to Tuned In Jr. and Tuned In Jr. Jr.

If you’re not the parent of young children, you are possibly not familiar with The Backyardigans, and almost certainly not familiar with Tale of the Mighty Knights. I am, intimately so, having brought a screener DVD of the TV movie along on a family trip to Michigan, during which, between screenings at my mother’s house and on the portable DVD player during the eleven-hour drive, the Tuned In Jrs. committed its songs and dialogue to memory better than college students marathoning Monty Python’s The Holy Grail.

I actually didn’t mind that. The Backyardigans is one of the better young kids’ shows out there, with fairly well-imagined characters, good original music (masterminded by Evan Lurie) and a sense of humor. No amount of cartoon-watching, however, can prepare you for seeing a grown actor doing a hip-hop dance on stage wearing antennae, a suit of armor and a distended foam belly.

A little background: The Backyardigans are five little creatures who live with their (never seen) moms and dads in adjoining houses with a common backyard a la the Henricksons’ in Big Love. They’re named Austin, Pablo, Tasha, Tyrone and Uniqua, and are, respectively, a kangaroo, a penguin, a hippo, a moose and something that I am pretty sure is an alien although some theorize that she is a lizard. Every episode, four or five or them have a pretend adventure in which they imagine themselves to be pirates, detectives, spies, news reporters, etc., and sing a few original songs.

What I love about the show is that (1) it makes no pretense of being educational and (2) the music isn’t sterotypically fit to the subject. “Samurai Pie,” in which the Backyardigans pretend to be ancient Japanese pie makers, is scored to spaghetti-Western music; a cowboy episode might have polka music, and so on. Tale of the Mighty Knights is a rock opera, specifically, a big, bombastic, ’70s glam-rock opera. The opening aria is vaguely Queen-like; Tasha, pretending to be a fairy, gets a solo that has a touch of Ziggy Stardust in it. It’s kind of like Hedwig and the Angry Inch without the Cold War history and transvestitism.

The Tuned In Jrs. don’t get the cultural mashups, of course, or the resemblances to the work of sexually ambiguous pop cultural figures, but they love the show anyway. And clearly plenty of kids in the greater New York area agree with them. They came in strollers, on piggyback and in Baby Bjorns. They toddled down staircases hanging shakily onto their escorts’ arms—”Big step, big step”—something one ordinarily sees only with drunk concert patrons or elderly Broadway ones. Enough of them got their parents to pony up as much as $55 a ticket to at least half fill the WaMu theater at the Garden for the first of seven weekend shows. Many of them further acceeded to $15 apiece for glowing plastic fairy wands, which lit up the house like cigarette lighters at a rock show once the house lights went down and which two boys a row in front of us preferred to use as maces.

The TV version of Mighty Knights (synopsis: knights Tyrone and Uniqua must rescue an escaped egg which is captured by Goblin Austin and Fairy Tasha before hatching into—spoiler alert!—a friendly dragon) runs 44 minutes, including several theatrically-unreproducible animated chase sequences. (Except for the occasional flying-on-a-wire bit, the stage show was almost devoid of special effects, so I have to guess there’s a nice chunk of profit built into those $55 seats.)

The live show is an hour plus intermission, so there was a fair amount of padding involved, including new song verses, between-act patter and a gripping subplot in which Pablo—playing the king who sends the knights on their quest—buys a pair of magic shoes that make him perform uncontrollable silly walks and occasionally fly. The audience of kids seemed to love it, of course: it all just mean 15 minutes more of the show, and they seemed not at all freaked out by the fact that all the characters’ voices were about three octaves lower than those in the cartoon.

Me, I had some issues. You wouldn’t think there are a lot of nuances to pick up in a cartoon aimed at preschoolers, but trust me, when you spend a lot of time watching TV with your young children, you notice the fine points of a Nick Jr. show as though it were Waiting for Godot. The voices were odd, but I could get past that. No, the show made me realize that just like complicated adult dramas, a good kids’ show has actual, developed characters. (To put it in terms a grown-up might remember: Bugs Bunny has actual foibles, quirks and weaknesses, Bert and Ernie have recognizable dynamics in their relationship, etc.) Annoying kids’ shows don’t, which is the main reason they are annoying; if Dora has any personality traits beyond “optimistic” and “loud,” for instance, I have yet to notice them.

But Backyardigans Live: Tale of the Mighty Knights—and I realize how crazy I sound even as I type this—just played hell with the characters. Though the general story followed the movie exactly, the added material seemed to be written by someone who had barely watched the cartoon: all the characters played broader, more aggressive and more stereotypically cartoon-obnoxious than the TV Backyardigans. Austin the kangaroo, for instance, has a sweet shyness to him, even when he’s playing a rascally character. On stage, though, his Grabbing Goblin was brazen and sassy, at one point teasing the knights when the Fairy Tasha cast a spell on them and froze them. TV Austin would never do that. If it is aesthetically possible to violate the dramatic integrity of a purple kangaroo pretending to be a goblin wearing a pumpkin shell for a hat, Backyardigans Live did.

Of course, that’s what the professional critic thought. Did Tuned In Jr. and Tuned In Jr. Jr. care? Not in the least. Their final verdict: Backyardigans Live: Tale of the Mighty Knights was even better than the original movie.

But not, they said, as good as Kung Fu Panda. Whose stage show, if there ever is one, I will make sure my children never know exists.