Julie’s Greenroom – An Earnest Indoctrination in the Performing Arts
Getting kids interested in the performing arts and teaching them the language, traditions, and attitudes of stagecraft is a noble pursuit that builds confidence, demonstates teamwork, and facilitates creativity. Netflix has introduced an original series made in conjunction with The Jim Henson Company that is an earnest indoctrination into the performing arts for young people. Julie’s Greenroom, starring the beloved film and stage actress Julie Andrews, premiered this last week and the result is a sincere and proactive attempt to make the arts accessible and embraceable for everyone.
The premise is simple. Julie Andrews (playing herself) owns a theatre company and, with the help of her eager technical jack-of-all-trades Gus (Giullian Yao Giolello), they lead a posse of five eager Muppet children in workshops toward putting together their own original stage production. There is Peri (Stephanie D’Abruzzo) the confident star wannabe with diva tendencies, Hank (John Tartaglia) the wheelchair-bound musician who plays a mean piano, Spike (Frankie Cordero) an aspiring writer who keeps a word bank journal of his favorite theatre words and their meanings, Riley (Jennifer Barhardt) a mop-headed, bespectacled technician-in-training, and Fizz (Dorien Davies) an energetic kid with a heart of gold who is suffering from low self-esteem. Also in the mix is the stage-struck duck Hugo (Tyler Bunch) and the frantic dog Toby (John Kennedy). This menagerie reflects a wide-range of ethnicities, backgrounds and interests. It’s a great way to demonstrate that the arts are for EVERYONE!
The setting is a theatre green room (where actors wait to go onstage before a performance). It is, in fact, one of the most luxurious green rooms ever witnessed, with beautiful brick ornamentation, comfy furniture, and the walls decked out in framed posters of Broadway musicals and famous ballets. Has there ever been a green room with this much new furniture? For most theatre nerds (like myself), this is a magical place. It also serves as Ms. Andrews’ office. Occasionally, the cast makes their way to the stage where they do warm-ups, performing exercises, rehearse, and have master classes with some of the great stars of acting, singing and dancing. Idina Menzel drops by to teach an Intro to theatre and set-up a behind-the-scenes tour of the Broadway musical Wicked. Josh Groban offers a singing lesson, Chris Colfer instructs in writing for the stage, and Alec Baldwin stops by to teach the basics of acting including projection (I’m glad someone is teaching it). This is all leading to the kids, or as Ms. Julie calls them, her “Greenies”, writing, producing, and performing their own original show.
The lessons learned along the way in Julie’s Greenroom are important ones for kids to know about performing. Peri wants to play the princess in their original play and must wrestle with her disappointment when she is instead cast as the ogre. Fizz’s lack of confidence inhibits her from trying certain things, but she is shown support by her peers and begins to come out of her shell. Theatre etiquette is taught, something that is essential nowadays (one keeps wondering if Patti LuPone will drop by and teach a much-needed master class in turning off your cell phones). Riley isn’t sure there is a place in the theatre for him, but soon discovers the magic of behind-the-scenes work and creativity. Spike beats himself up because he doesn’t feel he has a strong-enough understanding of writing to help write the show, but learns that if you just try, you can get better at what you do.
What is important here is that Julie’s Greenroom makes a place for everyone to participate in the theatre, doesn’t put just an emphasis on just the performers, and teaches that hard work is essential to putting together a production. So much is taken for granted in society in regards to all of these aspects, it is refreshing to see it addressed head-on here. My only quibble about the lessons is that they come at a clip and don’t necessarily give them time to settle in. Kids need some time to digest and some reinforcement of an idea.
Andrews is her usual lovely self, exuding the right levels of warmth and erudition when working with the Muppet children. Giolello is charming and enthusiastic as Gus (he also has a lovely voice). The Muppet cast is universally exceptional in their characterizations and puppet body language (many of them hail from the original Broadway cast of Avenue Q). The guest stars (Particularly Alec Baldwin) fit in beautifully and play off the puppets with no stiffness or lack of connection.
Julie’s Greenroom has many wonderful things going for it. It does, however, feel as if it needs a jolt of imagination that might help it feel a little less-forced in its earnestness. If you are looking for a Muppet-style wackiness, it is sparse here. It is congenial, low-key, and educational, but it needs just a little more electricity running through its veins before it really takes-off (which it has all the potential to do). Give it a try and watch it with your kids (if you have any) or by yourself if you love theatre. I think you will be pleasantly surprised and maybe learn a thing or two.