The Pre-K Graduating Class of 2011

A theater review


Today's column is guest-written by Endicott "Eddy" Saltenstall, dramaturge for the Bensonhurst Odeon and occasional theater critic for the Daily News.

RICHMOND, VA.—"All you can say for Kiss Me, Kate," wrote Brooks Atkinson, the immortal theater critic for The New York Times, "is that it is terribly enjoyable." Much the same goes for the graduation ceremony performed recently by the pupils and staff of the Bettye Ackerman Cobb Child Development Center ("the Bettye") at the Defense Supply Center off Jefferson Davis Highway in Richmond.

Productions such as these are not generally marked by their devotion to the avant-garde, and this was no exception. The set was, regrettably, conceptually uninspired—consisting chiefly of a cardboard "ABC" arch supported by pillars done up as Crayola crayons. The motif reminded an audience in little peril of forgetting that the occasion solemnized a transition from one phase of life, marked by potty-training and learning to sit criss-cross applesauce for story time, to a period of loftier pursuits: tying your own shoes, sounding out words, being the line leader, and other such stuff as dreams are made on.

After a polite welcome came the obligatory Pledge of Allegiance—spoken, unusually so for this sardonic age, without a trace of irony by the assembled audience of parents and family. (DSCR is a military installation, after all.) This was followed by a recital of the poem, "Do You Remember," by the graduates, in a declamatory style redolent of Olivier in his prime.

Yvette Bailey turned in a fine performance during her opening number, "Graduation Speech," delivered with a phrasing and cadence befitting her theme. The graduating pre-kindergarteners of 2011, she informed their parents and siblings, had learned "many priceless lessons" in their time at the Bettye. Among them: that life is "not just about learning but also . . . [about] love and friendship." And, she did not need to add, cookies and juice.

Tatanishia Armstrong's delivery of "Oh the Places You'll Go," with its wry observations leavened by tender optimism, revealed an impeccable command of timing and rhyme. All of this was, however, merely an amuse-bouche before the main course: the "Graduation Skit" (also titled, somewhat awkwardly, "Oh the Places You'll Go").

Inspired choreography began the number beyond the frame of the stage—a metaphorical nod to the importance of thinking outside the box, an imaginative skill whose ineluctable atrophy over the course of a K-12 education was hinted at, ever so obliquely, by the confinement of the rest of the number to a proscenium swallowed up by the existentially empty space around it. Ingmar Bergman would have been proud.

The occasionally undisciplined mugging and jumping about by the cast might have spoiled a production whose director had chosen to emphasize the darker dimensions of primary schooling. Here, it perfectly suited the mood of goofy looseness. And the earnestness of the young thespians' performances, delivered with a joie de vivre that beguiled, largely overcame the interpretive inconsistencies and (it must be said) occasionally unrefined vocal technique. Liam A. possessed a charming authenticity as "Construction Worker"; Lauren B. was delightful as "Firefighter," and Danielle F., who has a bright future as a soubrette if she ever chooses to pursue one, belted out her lines with gusto as "Cat in the Hat." She really knows how to sell it.

Had there been a sourpuss in the audience, he or she might have lamented a certain lack of dramatic coherence, perhaps even a slight Godot-like tediousness as the presentation of stock characters—Pilot, Doctor, Police Officer, Nurse, etc.—wore on. But the unassuming charm and infectious enthusiasm of the cast would have won over any critic whose blood had not yet turned to ice. (There may be one or two of them left.)

The surprise of the afternoon was Alva P. (Will's dad), whose comic turn providing the "Parental Acknowledgment" suggests he may wish to try his hand at the boards, if (Heaven forbid) his legal practice ever goes belly-up.

All in all the vivid performances, Sondheimesque ingenuousness, sumptuous costumes, and festive atmosphere made "The Pre-K Graduating Class of 2011" a delight.

Cynics, of course, are fond of scoffing at occasions such as these. Graduation ceremonies—for pre-kindergarteners? You cannot be serious!

No. They cannot. Pre-schoolers have not yet learned what a serious place the world can be—which is why they remain, to borrow a phrase from Robert Brustein's Letters to a Young Actor, "the living embodiment of the audience's joys and fears."

Not to mention a bottomless hole for cookies and juice.

A. Barton Hinkle is a columnist at the Richmond Times-Dispatch. This column originally appeared at the Richmond Times-Dispatch.