Early on, the five enormously talented actors who are currently performing at Playhouse on Park in West Hartford belt out a tune with heartfelt emotion and perfect harmony, and the result is pure musical theatre magic.
Unfortunately, “All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten” isn’t really a musical. During its less-than-stellar moments you might even argue that it really isn’t theatre, either, but simply a melo-comedic on-stage rendering of a book full of inspirational essays. And that’s a letdown only because of the magic that could have defined this entire spirited production, and not just a few pieces of it. All it needs is a little more, well, theatre magic.
There’s plenty of high energy, a lot of tenderness, much encouragement (staying just this side of overly preachy), and a number of hearty laughs.
But no magic, and not much music.
Then again, it is likely that the play’s creators didn’t really intend to write a musical in the first place, but felt they needed something to make the book on which it is based more theatre-worthy. Minister and essayist Robert Fulghum wrote “All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten” in 1988, and Ernest Zulia conceived and adapted it for the stage. Indeed, their product is reminiscent of ‘small’ musicals like “You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown” and revue-oriented plays like “A Thurber Carnival.” Maybe Fulghum and Zulia knew that a book of inspirational essays would be a hard theatrical sell if there weren’t something in it like, say, a Linus singing about “My Blanket and Me” or a Walter Mitty comically describing his befuddled forays into fantasy.
But alas, “All I Really Need to Know…” does not have the musical chops of “Charlie Brown” or the sharp wit of “Thurber.” While the play does have a lyricist and composer—David Caldwell (no bio in the program, though)—the songs are few, and those few are forgettable. Some productions opt not to use the handful of original songs, which apparently is an official, accepted option. Teasing the audience with fabulous vocal skills, as this production does, and then stomping through a lackluster and almost nonexistent score, is, ironically, one of its biggest disappointments.
And even though there are laughs, they seem more like pleasant random surprises than anything else. Maybe they have to be, since things like cancer and Nazi atrocities come up from time to time, as they do in the book, of course. There is no law that says you can’t mix those things all up, as Neil Simon has done successfully. There is no law, either, demanding that Fulghum or Zulia (who also doesn’t have a bio in the program) need to be in the same league as Neil Simon. It’s not a crime, just an anticlimax.
Fulghum’s original book has 50 short essays on a variety of ‘life lesson’ topics, from holidays and death to individuality and teamwork, and more than three dozen others in between. The theatrical version uses ensemble interplay, monologues, duologues, pantomime and other elements to transfer 22 of Fulghum’s life-lesson stories to the stage. These pleasant little tales range from an MOTB (mother of the bride) whose dream of a perfect wedding is unexpectedly expectorated, to a little boy who, in his school production of “Cinderella,” insists on playing a pig, even though there’s no pig in the story, to a man who has to tell God that for his entire life he thought the line was “Howard be thy name” instead of hallowed by thy name… Clever, sweet, thought-provoking stuff that celebrates life, understanding, compromise, resilience, diversity and more.
But cleverness, sweetness and thought-provocation aren’t always enough for stage success. A play like this needs higher highs and lower lows and gentle assaults on the senses to rise above a staged reading of inspirational essays. In fact, most plays need those things.
There are some weaknesses of transitions between many of the vignettes (not necessarily this production’s fault), and some of the stories seem to stop just short of mining the deepest emotional treasures (not this production’s fault, either; it may actually be a reflection of the author’s ministerial sensitivities). Ultimately, “All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten” seems to be a great play still waiting to be written.
In the West Hartford rendering, you could not ask for a more watchable or likable cast. Jeff Horst, Richard Dennis Johnson, Scott Scaffidi, Megan Snyder and Denise Walker take what they were given, give it exuberant life under Joseph-Keach Longo’s able direction, play seamlessly off of Kevin Barlowski’s fine musical direction and piano accompaniment, and make skilled use of Christopher Hoyt’s simple, multi-evocative set. As a result, the five of them come through completely unscathed by the play’s mediocrity. You can probably say they even rise above it. Two of the three gentlemen have similar voices, though, which limits the impact a bit. A little more variation, particularly for different characters, would be effective. Also, the pacing needs to be quickened here and there. (This is where many productions falter; dramatic pauses don’t always mean great drama—and in a play that is already two-and-a-half hours long, tightening it up would help without losing any of the impact.)
Rounding out the creative effort are lighting designer Tony Wisniewski and costume designer Eric Kacmarcik, and while what they accomplished is very accomplished, the show could have used even more of their skills. Good lighting and sound effects are employed several times throughout the play, but using it elsewhere—in such places as showing the man flying in his lawn chair or when it’s raining at the zoo—would have gone far in adding some of those higher highs, lower lows and sensory assaults that the play itself lacks. And since we’re talking about sensory assaults, it would be a nice touch if the clothes the five wear could cover more colors of the rainbow; as it was, there was just a tad too much similarity.
Some of the similarities between this play and its predecessors simply serve to remind us of how far this one has to go to be as good as them. There is a scene that is somehow suggestive of Snoopy’s Red Baron in “You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown,” and another that instantly brings to mind “The Night the Bed Fell on My Father” sketch from “A Thurber Carnival.” This play just needs a little more identity of its own—but obviously that means going beyond simply plunking Fulghum’s personal and distinctive essays onto a stage. There has to be more to it than that. It’s not always easy.
There were some empty seats on a recent Friday night performance, and that’s troubling. Of course, ticket prices are probably a reflection of the almost unfathomable costs of maintaining a theatre company these days. (Playhouse on Park is accurately billed as Off-Broadway in West Hartford, and prices might also reflect that, as well.) Maybe, too, un-filled theatres have something to do with the fact that too much of society does not truly appreciate the glory and power of live theatre. That’s a shame, because there’s nothing quite like it and virtually every production has something good to offer to hearts and minds; to be sure, this one certainly does. There is great value in both enjoying what’s attempted on stage and engaging in vibrant dialogue to determine what could be done to be able to enjoy it even more. The word should be spread. As the musical director said during his pre-curtain announcements, word-of-mouth is Playhouse on Park’s primary form of advertising.
There are so many elements that need to be combined to bring live theatre to audiences—an idea, a script, a cast, direction, lights, costumes and so much more—and sometimes the best of intentions can result in something less than perfect. That’s okay. In fact, it’s something most of us learn in kindergarten, and it’s not always the easiest lesson.
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