It’s the night before the opening. There are jitters and costume problems, forgotten lines and missed cues.
But with this production, there are few problems that can’t be solved with a juice box and an encouraging word.
Every year, the P.S. 81 Robert J. Christen School family is treated to a showcase of its student talent. And each year, it’s made possible by the long hours, willpower and cooperation of the school’s parents, who do almost everything to make the sure the show goes on, including singing and dancing themselves.
“This performance requires incredible dedication by the parents,” the show’s director and P.S. 81 parent coordinator Nina Velazquez said. She was the driving force behind this year’s early June performance.
Carrying a stack of newly printed programs ready to be folded, she breezed down the main stairwell and paused before opening the lunchroom doors.
“Just a warning, we’re walking into total chaos,” she said with a smile.
Nearly every surface of the makeshift green room was covered in bags, leftover pizza, and bits of costumes. More than 70 students, grouped by grade, waited to take the stage. Countless chattering voices droned on, but a calm, steady adult voice called out, “First grade’s on next. Get ‘em ready and get ‘em onstage.”
One exhausted mom turned to another, sighing.
“They should be serving wine for this,” she said. “At least for the adults.”
The show has been a school tradition for more than two decades, hence the choice to title the show “P.S. 81 Looks Back 20 Years.” Each grade chose a song to perform that was featured in past shows as an homage to the annual production’s history.
“It’s been a lot of work, but it’s been worth it,” Velazquez said. “My kids haven’t had a hot meal any night this week, but it’s worth it, and we’re nearing the finish line.”
When else would a child get their first chance to perform onstage, except for the hard work of dedicated parents opening a world of different experiences to them. To sing and dance, to make people smile, to feel those opening night jitters — these are moments that have transformed lives and inspired great actors and directors.
After the fifth grade performers filed off stage, the first graders were coaxed on. Their attention drifted from their recently applied costumes, to the tape grid on the stage floor, to the hot stage lights glaring down on them.
By now, the students have memorized their bit so well, they should be able to do it in their sleep.
“We’ve been rehearsing for months,” said first grade mom and costume designer Diana Capasso. “We started after the last break, so we have rehearsed every week since then.”
All the parents have pitched in to make the performance happen, she said. Moms spent evenings painting sets and dads scoured half the city looking for costume pieces. The amount of effort each family put into the show was nothing short of momentous.
“But Nina is the heart and soul of all of this,” Capasso said. “She’s seriously one of the coolest people I’ve met since coming to P.S. 81.”
Velazquez had disappeared backstage to open the curtain, coordinate music and adjust costumes simultaneously.
“This lady I’ve not met yet, but she’s been amazing at getting everyone on the same page,” Capasso said, indicating Jessica Kirby, one of the kindergarten coordinators. “God bless you.”
“Thanks. I’m trying,” Kirby said. “It’s a work in progress.”
Kirby helped 18 little ones train for opening night, most of whom have never been on stage in front of an audience before.
“I don’t think they understand,” she said. “They want to get on stage because it’s something of a playground to them, and that’s all that matters at that age.”
Drew Geraci clapped his hands, getting the first graders’ attention.
“Get in order,” he shouted. “Stand in your places.”
And as the music started, the world’s distractions disappeared and the double row of 6-year-olds flawlessly performed “You’ve Got a Friend in Me,” a song from the Pixar movie “Toy Story.”
Even with years of experience in theatre and working on Broadway, Geraci said teaching the routine to a group of little kids was like “herding a bunch of puppies.”
“It’s just giving them little things that they can keep in their brains that correspond with the lyrics,” Geraci said. “And then going over and over, adding little bits week to week.”
It’s made harder because rehearsal came after students had been in class all day, he added. Asking them to concentrate for another two hours after school was a tall order.
For some, this will be their first time onstage — something there’s not much Geraci can do to prepare them for.
“You just throw them out there and say, ‘You’re on, kid,’” he said.
P.S. 81 parent association president Marian Martin paused between wrangling microphones and spotlights to reflect on her final year of putting on the annual show.
“Myself and Gerry Gaughan have been doing this for 12 years, and this is our last year because our children are graduating out,” Martin said. “And while we will be very sad, there’s a little sigh of relief. Just a little one.”
It’s an insane amount of work full of distractions and last-minute disasters, but the thought that this will be the last time is bittersweet.
“While we’re completely and utterly stressed out right now, if you see us at 9 o’clock tomorrow night after the show, we will be celebrating because these kids have pulled this off,” Martin said.
“They do it every single year. These kids are amazing.”