Odd Squad Live bills itself as a theatrical production version of the popular PBS kids educational comedy show Odd Squad. The TV show version of Odd Squad is a comedic show aimed at kids aged 5 through 8 that hopes to teach kids how to use math to solve problems. The live stage version of Odd Squad just started touring in Fall 2016 and will be bouncing around the US for the next six months or eight months or so. My wife and my two kids (aged 6 and 10) were able to catch one of the shows early in the run. We were able to get tickets on Groupon for about $25 a person. So, is Odd Squad Live worth the price?
Just in case you aren’t familiar with Odd Squad: In the TV show a spy agency called Odd Squad is staffed by kids in suits who use fantastical technology (again, largely with a math component) to help adults out of silly and odd situations. It’s well-written, fast-paced, has likable characters and it’s entertaining enough for adults to get some of the gags as well. Part of the appeal of the TV show is that is shows kids in adult situations such as chasing the bad guy, solving tricky puzzles, ordering other agents around all while wearing matching suits. Part of the appeal of the show is watching the child actors “be” adults.
While the idea of children being smart and adults being dim-witted is a cliché in animated series, it’s rarely been done so well in live-action TV shows. In Odd Squad the main headquarters building is “kid-sized” so everything is a little smaller. They have wood-paneled offices, workstation cubicles and even a lab (like a real spy agency might have) but they also have two big slides and a ball pit. The special effects (and there are a lot) are easily as good as anything Dr. Who has put on the screen in the last 10 years.
The franchise has been a bit of an unexpected hit for PBS. The TV show is now in its third season and there’s even been an Odd Squad movie. Each TV episode typically has four or five math problems based on a central theme woven into the plot. I asked my kids if they enjoyed learning about math while watching Odd Squad and they both seemed surprised that the show was even remotely educational. Yeah, it’s so entertaining that it can subtly teach math concepts without kids even recognizing it as being educational.
The way I see it the Odd Squad TV show essentially has four things going for it:
- It’s an educational program that shows how you might use math in the real world.
- It’s written well enough to be entertaining for kids and adults.
- The sets and special effects really add to the believably of the world.
- Using kids as the central actors builds confidence in young viewers and helps them see themselves as empowered individuals.
Odd Squad Live has billed itself as a stage version of the TV show, though before the tour started (and when we bought our tickets) there really weren’t many details about the show available. My children have never been any sort of “real” production of a live theater show, but we took a leap of faith and chose this as their first stage show experience. I didn’t time it, but I’m guessing the show was a little more than 90 minutes long and it had an intermission. Yes, we had to explain that concept to my kids.
Let’s go through the high points of the TV show and see if the Odd Squad Live stage show holds up.
Uses Math in the Real World
There are probably about a dozen math problems of various types in Odd Squad Live, but the show doesn’t dwell on them too long. In a few cases the actors come out into the audience and ask kids to help solve a problem which inevitably results in hundreds of kids raising their hands, jumping out of their seats and generally screaming “me, me, me” as kids do. My daughter was one of them. There are other math segments where the actors just work through the math themselves, though they almost always have a visual component such a number line or graphs on a large screen on the stage.
So, yeah, the math is there, but it’s quick. Most, if not all, of the math puzzles in the live show were used in the TV show at one point.
Some of the writers for the Odd Squad TV show also wrote the Odd Squad Live show, and it shows. The tone of the two productions is similar, the gags are family oriented and it’s just the right mix of silly and serious.
I don’t want to ruin the show with any spoilers, but Odd Squad Live does have a somewhat convoluted multi-layer plot. The show has a clever way of getting kids invested in the show right off the bat, though my own kids found it a little bit confusing until we explained how it all worked. There are lots of different characters rolled out pretty quickly and I think my kids found it a little tricky to follow in the first few minutes.
Eventually all the introductions settle down and you get the general gist of where the show is going. We’re presented with an overall problem that has to be solved in little (mathematical!) steps and it all starts to make sense.
The show has a few different musical numbers and these are a little jarring at first because there really isn’t a lot of singing and dancing the TV show. Some of the songs felt as though they needed some work, but there is a surprise appearance by the only regular musicians in the TV show and that musical number works well on the stage, waking up the audience a bit late in the show.
The writing doesn’t sparkle in Odd Squad Live. It’s not bad, but it just doesn’t gel. Some of the lines that would work on TV simply don’t work on stage. Most of the scenes are explanatory and moving the plot forward, but they don’t always entertain very much. A few scenes just plod along.
The plot itself is a little convoluted and there are a lot of characters changing in appearance or motivation within the single show. There are soliloquies, there is a video screen, there are stage scenes, there are scenes in the audience and there are musical numbers. We jump around from one to the other an awful lot. In a TV show this is a quarter second flip to a new scene, but on a stage there are odd interludes and set changes that need to be done. To get around this another plot element involving bottled water is introduced which sort of falls flat.
It should be noted that the Odd Squad Movie, while much longer than a regular TV show, doesn’t have any of these problems. It is true to the spirit of the show and expands the universe a bit without ever feeling disjointed or flat.
Now, there is hope. We saw the show in early October and we spotted a production member (maybe a writer) sitting in the back of the audience taking copious notes during the show.
The TV show has great-looking sets and special effects and the Odd Squad Live show tries to at least bring some of the same feeling to the stage. It’s always difficult going from a TV screen to a stage, but the Odd Squad Live staging generally works, though it sometimes felt a little sparse. Most of the sets are comprised of a few pieces of furniture or boxes and a big screen that’s used for background images or video.
The costumes and special effects during the show are what you’d expect for a show that has to travel to dozens of different theaters and set up and take down quickly. There are fog machines and lasers and flashing lights and a few neat props. It was all done pretty well and kept everyone’s attention.
The sound production was mediocre at best. Individual lines could be heard, but the lyrics to most of the musical numbers were lost. The overall vocal quality was a bit muddy in our theater. I haven’t been to a lot of live theater in the past few years, but I suspect this is a common problem with most travelling shows. If you check out the official Odd Squad Facebook page you’ll see other parents (who attended in other theaters) complaining about the same sound issues.
The music itself seems catchy enough. I would imagine between the TV show and the live stage show that there might be enough mathematical musical numbers to put out an Odd Squad music CD. My kids would be into that.
At the live show there are Odd Squad themed souvenirs for sale (of course!) and they seemed to be pretty good quality. My daughter got an Odd Squad badge for $10 and it’s one of the best toy badges I’ve seen. Before the show begins the screen on stage flashes Odd Squad “facts” which are pretty entertaining and does a good job of getting you into the Odd Squad universe.
As I mentioned, there wasn’t a lot known about Odd Squad Live when it was first announced. Several parents I talked to all hoped it might contain one or more child actors from the TV show, but we weren’t really holding our breath. And that was a wise move.
The only children in the show appear on a big projection screen. We meet two new Odd Squad Agents, Oleanna and Orion, as kids on the screen. We see the infamous Ms. O as a kid on the screen. I believe we see another child or two… but that’s about it.
The actors on stage are all very good, well cast and pretty believable. Both Jackie Reynolds (Agent Oleanna) and Cliff Sellers (Agent Orion) have what it takes to carry the show. They’re engaging, they’re likable and they can handle the occasional awkward line or two like pros. If I was reviewing any other stage show I’d probably end right there.
But here’s where I have to give away a minor spoiler because there’s no way around it: There are no child actors on the stage. None. At all. Oleanna and Orion, the new agents, appear on stage as full-grown adults. Their costuming is appropriately short and tight, but they are both 20 something actors and not kids.
From a production standpoint I can’t imagine how difficult it would be to have kids working in a traveling stage show. But as an Odd Squad fan I really wanted it. Part of the overall charm of Odd Squad is the conceit of children dressing like adults and running around like they are in a secret spy agency. The entire Odd Squad world loses a little bit of innocence and charm when there are only adults inhabiting it.
So, is Odd Squad Live worth the $100+ for a family of four? That’s really up to you and your family, but I will offer a few things to consider. If you’re looking for a stage show that the kids and adults will enjoy together you could probably do much worse. If you’re a passing fan of the Odd Squad TV show then Odd Squad Live is a unique (though slightly tedious) way to spend an hour or two on a weekend. If you’re a big fan of Odd Squad and you’ve seen every show then you might find Odd Squad Live a little less entertaining and, yeah, less charming.
Expectations are difficult to overcome, and that’s the ultimate problem with Odd Squad Live. It simply isn’t enough like the TV show. It removes one of the main elements (kids!) and it tries to use TV show writing and plot elements on a live stage with mixed success.
I would also recommend using Groupon to get your tickets just to save yourself some money. Our show was full, but not sold out. Most shows seem to still have tickets available, so you might see more deals around as the show travels to your area.
Odd Squad Live is a simple theatrical production based on a PBS kid’s show. It has some of the comedic and educational aspects of the TV show, but it’s also missing some of the key elements that make the TV show so engaging. In the end it’s a slightly disjointed and uneven show that still manages to entertain and engage the kids.
You can visit the official Odd Squad Live website to learn more.