There's a feature-length film on the way, a syndicated cartoon in hundreds of newspapers, more new episodes on television, toys and more geegaws, and now a high-energy stage show to suggest that 1998 has become the Year of the Rugrats.
"Rugrats - A Live Adventure," which takes over the FleetCenter Thursday through Sunday, is based on the cute misadventures of Tommy, Chuckie, Angelica, twins Phil and Lil, and their often ineffectual (and often curiously absent) parents. They are the core of "Rugrats," the hottest franchise at the Nickelodeon network, an animated show that claims better name recognition than Bugs Bunny or Mickey Mouse with kids ages 6 to 11.At the live show's recent premiere at Radio City Music Hall, thousands of children with parents in tow reverently chant the names of their favorite characters. Once settled into their seats, audience members see a fast-paced, visually arresting show in the classic Broadway style, polished by nearly two months of out-of-town previews before it dared venture into the shadow of the New York skyline. This extensive preparation, and a Big Apple-size $4 million budget that exceeds that of most Broadway productions, are strong signs that this is not just another tra-la-la kidfest designed to lure families into an arena.
"Rugrats - A Live Adventure" represents the newly achieved maturity of children's entertainment, which has grown into a significant segment of both television and live theatrical markets. It seems the only thing childish about children's entertainment is the intended audience.
"It's like a grown-up rock 'n' roll show to them," said Mark Moth-ers-baugh, the former keyboardist for the art-punk band Devo who composed the show's music with his brother Bob. "The Rugrats are like the Beatles for this age group. They're used to seeing the show on this flat screen and all of a sudden it's blown out in four dimensions right in front of them. I'm jealous of how much they're getting off on it," he said at a party after the premiere.
Groups of children, already amped on M&Ms and soda, bounce in their seats when they hear the recognizable voices from the television show blast through the theater. For those parents who can't keep track without a scorecard, Angelica is bratty; Chuckie is destined for therapy; Tommy is clad in diapers although, strangely, never seems to have his diaper changed; Phil and Lil are the bizarrely gender-blended twins; and there is the rest of the Pickle clan. All cast voices were recorded for the live-action show.
The new scale of children's entertainment is perhaps shown best in the talent assembled behind the scenes, all veterans of Broadway stage productions, films, the rock world, and television. Danny Herman, former dancer in "A Chorus Line" and choreographer of "Dreamgirls," made the big-headed kids appear to move realistically. Costume designer Gregg Barnes created the wild freaks in "Side Show" and the glitzy "Christmas Spectacular" at Radio City.
G.W. Mercier, a Tony nominee and Drama Desk Award winner, designed the puppets and sets, and kept to the television show's odd child's-eye view of the world by severely skewing perspectives.