I never knew kindergarten could be such a bitch. All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten starts out innocently enough, turning cast members into 5-year-olds with great success as the opening number captures almost everything good about the best-selling book that lends the play its name.
The complexity comes in the play's difficulty in finding a focus. The title is somewhat misleading, since the play draws on six of Robert Fulghum's bestsellers, and apparently he found some darker subjects to deal with after moving on from nursery school. For a play with kindergarten as its big draw, there is an awful lot about death transpiring on the stage.
Fulghum doesn't write books for children, but this play hasn't entirely decided who its audience is. The kindergarten scenes are played as if they are aimed at kindergartners, and much of the play's exaggerated style would probably go over better with a children's theater crowd. There's an effective uniformity in the approach to portraying toddlers that would wear us down if we had to endure it for the full three hours, but most of the scenes move beyond the playground and the classroom into an adult world that is somewhat disarming for those expecting any kind of through-line for the characters we meet.
If the kid stuff stretches the patience of the adults in the audience, similar scenes of alarming incongruity -- such as using hide-and-seek as a metaphor for cancer -- "he hid too good" -- seem a little much to saddle a kid with. The adapters had death on the brain, running the gamut from multiple cancer scenes to cemetery plots.
The cast is solid, giving an exhaustive, if not exhausting, performance. Many of the soloists have difficulty projecting over the offstage, three-piece band, but when they come together for the frequent ensemble numbers -- particularly the complicated second act opener, "Uh Oh," a madrigal of yippies, yums, hubba-hubbas, yadda-yaddas, blah-blahs, and hard-dee-harr-hars, with a duh and a ho-hum but nary a doh to be heard -- they are a force to be reckoned with. Carrie Clark is the show's secret weapon, wowing the audience in the second act finale and making us wish we'd seen more of her earlier.
While the production keeps things fairly simple, there are plenty more costume changes than one would expect from a script which calls for such subtle costuming to begin with. And although director Michael Stansberry has designed an elegant white set, fluid in its abstractions and its ability to change color and mood so completely, the decision to rotate the entire stage on a turntable between scenes, moving from one abstract space to a slightly differently configured abstract space, crosses the border into overkill.
The play is similar in structure to a small handful of plays that actually have featured writers primarily known for their work for children, including the recent Swimming in Seuss, the locally conceived A Day in the Life...with Shel Silverstein, and of course, the original You're a Good Man, Charlie Brown. It is episodic in nature, weaving a tapestry that creates an overarching ambiance without ever needing to invest in maintaining a commitment.
But with so many sudden shifts in character and tone, Fulghum's 24 stories are a hard sell outside of the choir loft. Deep thoughts and daily affirmations do not cry out for the stage.