Encore Michigan

World Premiere: ‘Geranium On The Windowsill…’ at Flint Youth Theater spotlights kids’ need to be free and fidget

Review April 27, 2018 Bridgette Redman

FLINT, Mich.–We’ve all heard the message before: “Don’t speak unless spoken to.” “Sit up straight.” “Listen.” “Good boys and good girls always…”

They are messages that used to be drilled into the heads of school children—and in some places still are. They are messages that school teacher Albert Cullum knew were detrimental to children’s growth and learning, and he wrote about it in a book that was published in 1971, a book called The Geranium on the Windowsill Just Died but Teacher You Went Right On.

That story, lengthy title and all, has been turned into a musical with book and lyrics by Michael Lluberes and music by Jared M. Dembowski, and it got its world premiere at Flint Youth Theatre this past week. The show, directed by Lluberes, features nine children and the off-stage voices of two adults.

While the actors are all children, the story is really one aimed at parents and in particular educators. Each of the songs, which go through the various academic subjects and parts of a school day, open a window on the inner life of a child and how the rigors of a school day and life affect them.

There is Bobby, played by Dalton Hartwell, who knows he is supposed to sit still and practice his writing, but his pencil wants to drum, his foot is asleep, and his body wants to move. It’s taking all of his concentration just to stay in his seat and not move and getting any writing done is a task that is just beyond him.

Then there is Amy, played by Allie MacDonald, who sits next to him in the very front row. She’s the perfect student, eager to get everything right, to do all the extra credit, to make sure her pencil is the sharpest, and to not let it show how much all of the pressure is getting to her.

Each of the children have a story that comes out in their songs and all of the songs continually preach the message that children need to have freedom—freedom to explore, freedom to move, freedom to be themselves, freedom to mourn, freedom to grow.

There is also a geranium, played by Adrienne Robinson. She has one of the most challenging tasks as she is already sitting at the desk when the house doors open a half hour before the show begins and she sits there, never moving. In her bright red dress (costumes by Ryan Park) she draws the eye and the students are concerned about whether she will grow or die, especially Katie, played by Edith Pendell, who eventually leads the rebellion when the geranium dies because it, like the children themselves, gets suffocated by the lack of sunshine, water and love.

One of the more compelling songs is sung by Joey Urgino who is Matthew. Matthew is always getting in trouble and the teacher asks him if he is a good boy or a bad boy, and he gets sent to the corner when he says he is a bad boy. It is there he fights it out in “Good Me/Bad Me.” Alison Dobbins’ projection design provides two chalk drawings of a good self and bad self and they fight hard. Urgino does an excellent job of expressing all the frustration of wanting to be one thing while always being told he is another. He sings clearly and well but also displays great physicality as he jumps about from one persona to the other, fighting himself in unison with the projections in the background.

MacDonald also shows great heartbreak when she sings “One Plus One,” a song about her family and her efforts to come to an understanding about her parents’ divorce. She has a crystalline voice and is excellent at capturing a child’s sadness.

Hartwell has wonderful comic timing from his very first song all the way through. His “Hold It In” during a test when he has been told he can’t go to the bathroom is hilarious even as the audience sympathizes with his plight.

Don’t think that because all the actors are children that the show is something “less than.” “Geranium” is polished and professional both in the acting and in the technical production of the show. The quality is high and it is a very satisfying show.

“Geranium” gives you a lot to think about while challenging parents, teachers and educators to listen to children and give them the room they need to thrive, to pay attention to the things we say to them so that we don’t kill the geranium.

Run time: 90 minutes, no intermission

Week of 11/18/2019

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