When the Sesame Street Live touring company comes to Spokane next week with its latest stage production, "Big Bird's Sunny Day Camp Out," the headliner of the show is definitely the eight-foot-plus yellow-feathered avian wonder. Big Bird, the perennial 6-year-old, has been a favorite of children for more than 30 years now. At the show, the audience will hear the familiar voices of Big Bird and all of his furry and feathered friends as they sing and dance their way through the 90-minute show.
But it takes live actors inside each character to bring the full-size Muppets to life. Actor Brian Harris, a St. Louis area native, is now in his third year of being the alter-ego inside the bigger-than-life bird-child, but he doesn't seem to mind being the man behind the Muppet.
"It's pretty awesome to be in the show and to see the kids get so excited when we all come out at the beginning," he says. "They'll be dancing and singing along with us. And it's not just the kids. A lot of the adults have grown up with the TV show, so they sing and dance, too."
The opening moments of the show may carry the biggest adrenaline pump for Harris, but he says just being part of the show is a thrill. "Being surrounded by all the characters is exciting because I grew up with the show, too," he explains. "So, I'll look across the stage and say to myself, 'Hey, isn't that Bert and Ernie over there? Wasn't that Elmo who just walked in front of me?' It's really amazing. This is definitely at the top of my list of what I've done in my career."
Like the landmark television show, Sesame Street Live is written on two levels, Harris says. While there are plenty of songs, jokes, and skits -- including the educational content -- aimed at the little folks, the show's creators have made sure to fill the spaces with music and gags aimed at the alleged adults in the crowd. "We do songs like Rubber Duckie for the kids, but we also do "This Joint Is Jumpin'" from Ain't Misbehavin', and that's more for the adults," he says. The mix is a hit with audiences, from Harris's perspective on the stage. "Oh, yeah, from where I am, I can see the parents are digging it, too."
Much of the music for Sesame Street Live is taken from the original television show or its spin-offs like Elmo's World, and the voices of the characters are all done by the original voice actors from the Sesame Workshop (formerly the Children's Television Workshop). But many Broadway show tunes have been integrated into the plotline, says Harris. "This show has more Broadway songs [than earlier Sesame Street Live productions], but it goes along with the whole plot of the show."
That plot begins with Big Bird and his friends looking for the perfect place to set up camp. They discover that Big Bird's nest is too small to hold all of his pals, so they try Snuffy's cave. When dripping water makes the cave unacceptable, they check out each friend's home in turn, only to find some kind of problem waiting everywhere they go. Along the way, the buddies sing and dance their way through lessons in teamwork and problem-solving, only to discover that no matter where they go, going with friends is the only way to get along. Long-time favorites like Oscar the Grouch and Count Von Count add to the fun.
Even though the Muppet characters onstage are far larger than they appear on the small screen, children have no trouble recognizing their friends right away, Harris says. "Sometimes when we do a 'meet-and-greet' with the kids, they'll run right up to us. Children will see the character's face and that's immediately who it is. They know it's Cookie Monster or it's Ernie and Bert, so they just want to melt into your arms."
Harris went to the audition for Sesame Street Live thinking of the show as simply a way to advance his career, but he says the experience has turned into far more than that.
"Within the first week of being in the cast, it was no longer about career advancement. It became about really liking my job and saying this is the right thing for me to be doing." Working conditions inside the yellow-feathered costume are far from ideal, making the role physically challenging, but Harris says he can't think of anything else he'd rather be doing now. "It gets pretty hot in there, sure. But you know what you're doing and you're doing it for a reason."
Sesame Street Live runs at the Spokane
Opera House on Thursday, Oct. 25 at 7 pm,
Friday, Oct. 26, at 10:30 am and 7 pm, Saturday, Oct. 27, at 10:30 am and 2 pm, and Sunday,
Oct. 28, at 2 pm. Tickets: $10-$18 (all seats on opening night are $10). Call: 325-SEAT.