If Rachael Ray pulled a Network and slipped some anti-corporate-America sentiments in between her “Yum-O!s,” her TV series might look a wee bit like The Rachel Trachtenburg Morning Show, a kid-friendly, progressive-parent-approved variety show in downtown Manhattan. (Well, at the very least, both shows do have snacks, crafts, and special guests…) I first caught 14-year-old Rachel’s band, the indie-vaudeville Trachtenburg Family Slideshow Players, about five years ago, playing at a shoebox-y theater with a then-unknown Regina Spektor. Back then, Rachel (pictured) could barely reach her drum kit, but she made her presence known with her winningly off-the-cuff comments and chirpy-sweet singing voice. So when I heard she was putting on a show of her own, I figured it wouldn’t be your typical children’s hour. Right I was.
The purple octopus who offered me a balloon on the way in was my first clue. After he danced an awkward jig, I overheard him admit to another audience member, “I never realized how complicated it is to be an octopus.” It was that kind of freewheeling, glimpse-behind-the-curtain quality that summed up the show. Sets fell down and science experiments fizzled the first time around, but I’m firmly in the camp that prefers charming goofs to robotic perfection. “You heard there’s a writers’ strike! I don’t think so. This is ‘A’ material, people!” joked manic dad Jason as he helped Rachel and wife Tina do the weather report on a felt board. (Despite the name-branding, the RTMS is still a family affair.) And much of the material did kill, based on the hearty, knowing response from the adults in the crowd, including actor Jesse Eisenberg (The Squid and the Whale), who told me he owns all of the Slideshow Players’ CDs.
Performance artist Reverend Jen gave gentrification a childlike spin with a puppet show about the sale of Manhattan for $24. “Smallpox, dysentery, cholera, malaria, and whiskey” were just a few of the “gifts” bestowed upon the Native American puppet — who was promptly replaced by a dead Native American puppet. A hilariously deadpan magic-mushroom puppet, voiced by comic Master Lee, dissed David Copperfield and hinted at the meaning of life. Australian/vegetarian go-go dancer Anna Copa Cabanna and her sequin-wearing male dancers (no doubt moonlighting as understudies in the Broadway production of Xanadu) cautioned against cellphone use via a lilting little musical number. But the award for most whacked-out political performance went to death-metal enthusiast T.Y. (link contains some non-kid-friendly language), who didn’t even remotely try to candy-coat his segment for the kiddies. “Can you say ‘Super Satan,’ boys and girls?” he asked while holding up a hand-drawn picture of Rudy Giuliani.
Lest you think said kiddies sat with their chins in their hands while their parents laughed and laughed, there was plenty to keep the under-8 set enthralled. They traipsed after roller-skating Rosie Rebel, who led a workout with construction-paper weights to the tune of “Eye of the Tiger,” and giggled at Seagull the puppet, a Scottish bird fond of eating its “cousin,” General Tso’s chicken. (Of course, the bird appeared to be the only meat-eater on stage. The snack du jour: organic popcorn with vegan butter.) If I could relive my kindergarten days (and I wouldn’t mind, if only for the mandatory naptime), I’d probably be right up there in the front row, dancing around to Rachel’s ukulele. Some might call it indoctrination; I call it an entertaining way to spend a Saturday.