Make new friends but keep the old on Sesame Street
Just because we come from different worlds, it doesn't mean we can't play and work together.
This message of multiculturalism, prevalent in today's diverse world, comes through for children at Sesame Street Live's “Make a New Friend,” a show that kicks off a three-day run Jan. 13 at the Benedum Center in Pittsburgh.
In this Sesame Street Live production, a girl from India named Chamki comes to Sesame Street to visit her friend Grover. Yet Grover, the furry blue monster, gets a bit too possessive about wanting to pal around with Chamki, to the exclusion of his other Muppet buddies. As the story unfolds, Grover introduces Chamki to his friends from “Sesame Street,” including classic favorites like Big Bird, Bert and Ernie and Cookie Monster.
Together, the gang has a sunny day as both Chamki and the crew swap stories about their cultural customs and traits, like dance, food and language.
“It's all about making new friends, but learning to include your old friends as well,” says Rachel Dresner, performance director for the show produced by Minneapolis-based VStar Entertainment Group.
“The biggest moral that I think this show has is inclusion,” she says. “We have audience members and children come to this show from all walks of life … and they're realizing it's OK that your friend may enjoy a different snack than you; you can still enjoy your snacks together and play together. You can always teach each other something from their own culture.”
Kids in the audience probably haven't heard of Chamki, a 6-year-old girl who is not in the American “Sesame Street” but is a regular character in India's version of the TV show, called “Galli Sim.”
“It's a really cool opportunity … to bring a different character that the world may not know about, but it is part of the ‘Sesame Street' family,” says Dresner, who has been with Sesame Street Live for three seasons and started as a dancer. “I have learned so much about Indian culture from the show, so I can imagine what kids are taking away from it.”
Devon Szklanka, who plays the quirky Count von Count, says the “Sesame Street” characters and their Indian friend celebrate both cultural similarities and differences.
“They get to see how things are done in different parts of the world,” Szklanka says. Chamki “may not look like us and talk like us, but we're able to make friends with her.”
Kids at Sesame Street Live shows get Broadway-style entertainment with characters who are rock stars to them, Szklanka says. Adults have their Mick Jaggers, Jon Bon Jovis and Beyonces, while little kids have their Counts and Elmos. And when the characters at “Make a New Friend” go out into the audience to hug kids, the kids go crazy like fans at a rock concert, she says.
This audience interaction and participation is one of Szklanka's favorite parts of the show and “seeing how excited they are up close.”
The math-loving Count acts as an ensemble member, like most of the other characters do in the show, says Szklanka, 22, who grew up in Philadelphia and studied dance at The University of the Arts in Philadelphia. He does shine in his own number called “Count Me In,” where the Count wears a big bushy wig and shiny gold jacket while dancing to Bruno Mars music.
The show — which lasts 75 minutes, with a 15-minute intermission — includes a lot of fun music and parodies, with a mixture of oldies like the “Sunny Days” theme song from TV and current pop music from stars like Katy Perry, Dresner says. Audience members of all ages love the music and characters and show, she says.
“It's a good combination of new and old,” says Dresner, who encourages people to bring cameras to the show. “We've gotten letters where the parents have just written thanking us for the family outing. … Kids, parents, grandparents — we've seen everyone … together.”
Indeed, the inter-generational aspect of “Sesame Street,” which first aired in 1969 and has been entertaining kids ever since, provides a good bonding opportunity at the live show, Szklanka says.
“I think it's just a timeless thing,” she says. “Everyone can relate to the show. … It brings back childhood for (adults), and they get to share with their kids.”
Kellie B. Gormly is a Tribune-Review contributing writer.