Everything I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten
by Robert Fulghum
Conceived and Adapted by Ernest Zulia
Music and Lyrics by David Caldwell
Directed by Joseph Keach-Longo
at Playhouse on Park in West Hartford through March 11
I’m going to up front with you, gentle reader. I really, really did not like Everything I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten, the musical currently running at West Hartford’s Playhouse on Park through March 11. This is not because it is a bad show, per se. Maybe it is because my only memory of kindergarten is my teacher Mrs. Bellamy standing me in front of a urinal and whacking me on the back while ordering me to cough up my phlegm. Most likely it is because the show is just trying too darn hard, like some teacher’s pet.
Based on Robert Fulghum’s 1988 inspirational bestseller of the same title, it is an antidote to the testy times in which we live. A slim volume of short stories that have thoughtful and/or uplifting messages on a variety of subjects, the book has been a pleasant addition to many a home. Much like Reader’s Digest, it can either be viewed as a reminder of a kinder, gentler bygone era or, as I saw it, pabulum. It all depends on whether you think of it as Chicken Soup for the Soul or Chicken Poop for the Brain.
The show, conceived and adapted by Ernest Zulia, is plotless and alternates between monologues, multi-actor pieces and songs written by David Caldwell. As such, it is a sort-of musical with only six songs plus one reprise. The stories are generally parables with a little “ah ha!” moment at the end. It definitely takes the Forrest Gump approach of “Life is like a box of chocolates,” with some being icky-sweet while others are surprisingly grim.
The actors do not play any particular character as they are called to be narrators or players in various scenes. Performed on a fairly plain set (designed by Christopher Hoyt) in fairly plain costumes (designed by Tony Wisniewski), the piece is fairly bland. Is it something you could take your grandmother to see? ABSOLUTELY. Were people in the audience enjoying it? Yes. Am I too much of a Crabby Appleton to like this sort of thing? Probably.
The five performers are an eager-to-please lot. When they initially galloped onstage acting like kindergarteners, my heart sank. One of my least favorite things is when adults act like children onstage as they almost universally get it wrong. The All I Need to Know cast pretty much steps right in it from the get-go with over-gesticulation and mugging that careens from childlike to just plain childish. A quick field trip to, dare I say it, a kindergarten would reveal that unless you are observing a group of hyper-caffeinated ADHD toddlers, kids don’t act this way. Fortunately, the cast grows up in a hurry with the stories and songs that ensue.
The standout performers are Richard Dennis Johnson and Megan Snyder. Johnson seems to realize that the various stories require distinctive characters and as an actor he digs down and adds dimension to the simple tales. Snyder, a beautiful young lady with a voice to match, keeps her performance grounded in reality and simplicity. Denise Walker, blessed with a winning smile and stage personality, does her best with what appears to be the most limited stage time and some hokey tales.
The two younger men in the cast – Scott Scaffidi and Jeff Horst – go for the gold in their attempt to overcompensate for the show’s shortcomings. Every moment features physical or telegraphed actions or reactions that are way too large for Playhouse on Park’s intimate space. They both work their tails off and have powerful singing voices, but it only adds extra ham to the cheese.
The play drives home that over time we become cynical. One of the things about kindergarten is that we are still wide-eyed and innocent. Everything I Really Need to Know… seeks to recapture that spirit. I guess I lost it and it ain’t coming back. But, I invite you to go and decide for yourself. Just don’t ask me to come with you.