The Day You Begin, a new musical directed by Charlotte Brathwaite and based on the picture book of the same name by Kennedy Center Education Artist-in-Residence Jacqueline Woodson, made its debut this weekend at the Kennedy Center’s Family Theater. Like the book, the musical is big on empowerment and inclusivity. And for this musical version (billed as “A Play with Lots of Music”), what it lacks in narrative plot, it makes up in an atmospheric bubble of positivity and acceptance.
The set, a classroom that is visible upon entering the theater, is inviting, fun, and cheerful. Even before we meet the classroom’s teacher Ms. Veve, played by the effervescent Audrey Hailes, the set makes clear it’s a place where any child or adult would want to spend their time. Scenic Designer Jian Jung and Props Designer Sam Bay clearly did their research and it paid off in droves.
The musical intersperses interactivity throughout, but especially at the beginning when Ms. Veve warms up the audience by celebrating and shouting out the singers, dancers, teachers, basketball players, etc. in the audience. The tone and theme are thus communicated right away: we are all unique and worthy beings with stories to tell. Hailes’ Ms. Veve exudes the capable warmth and command of a master teacher.
We then meet the rest of the cast: the four children preparing for their first day of school. There’s Angelina (a sweet and affable Carla Duren), who has spent her summer reading books to her sassy little sister (played with hilarious accuracy by Hailes), Min, played in the performance I attended by Sarah Anne Sillers, a quirky artist who loves monsters, Sam (Noah Virgile), a nonverbal, musical soul with sensory sensitivity, and Rigoberto (Camilo Linares), a soccer-obsessed boy who moved from Venezuela and who is really missing his abuelita.
Rigoberto’s entrance is one of the many unexpected delights in the musical. He is “playing” soccer as he enters from the audience, involving many eager young children in pantomiming heading the ball back to him as he makes his way to the stage. My son’s and many other kids’ jaw dropped as they realized the screen on the stage was suddenly showing the audience itself, and they could actually see themselves on it!
The special effects and lighting in The Day You Begin deserve a special mention, as they are integral to the entertainment and enjoyment of this production. The work of Lighting Designer Tuce Yasak and Projection Designers Hailey LaRoe and Attilio Rigotti was a major boon to the musical.
Of the nine musical numbers, a few stand out. Hailes’ lead vocals in “Veve’s Good Morning” are beautiful and strong. Her voice is magnetic. The aforementioned grand entrance of Rigoberto is accompanied by the upbeat and fun “My Name Is Rigoberto,” with a catchy Latin rhythm.
When the four children are at lunch, three of them are put off by Min’s strong-smelling kimchi and rice dish. As a result, Min sings and educates us about the ubiquity of rice in “Min’s Precious World,” which is reminiscent of a folk rock song. Sillers rocked this number as she sang, “…let’s talk about rice,” with enthusiasm.
“Pick Me” also caught my attention for its great beat and energy. Toshi Reagon impressively not only wrote the music and lyrics for “The Day You Begin” but also plays guitar, drums, percussion, and synth on many of the numbers.
In a couple of the numbers, I had difficulty hearing the lyrics; the singers sounded slightly muffled or quiet as the background music seemed to overpower them. This is may have been because my seat was right under the speakers, but worth mentioning.
The actors are to be commended for playing characters much younger than themselves with dignity and conviction. My five-year-old asked me after the musical, “Mom, were those kids?” The mannerisms, cadence, movement, and facial expressions were all executed to perfection. Virgile, whose subtle yet authentic portrayal of Sam included no spoken lines, uses a talking keyboard to communicate. It sparked curiosity and a great conversation with my son. Linares was a memorable and enigmatic Rigoberto who lit up the stage.
Attending this performance is certain to make you feel affirmed and content, empowered to tell your own stories with pride and carry the cheerful bubble of The Day You Begin’s world with you for a long time.
Running Time: 55 minutes, with no intermission.
The Day You Begin plays through December 18, 2022, at the Kennedy Center’s Family Theater – 2700 F Street, NW, in Washington DC. For tickets ($20–$25), call the box office at (202) 467-4600, or purchase them online. Best suited for ages 7–12 according to Kennedy Center’s website.
The program for The Day You Begin is online here.
The production will embark on a National Tour in 2023 (dates and venues to be
COVID Safety: Masks are optional in all Kennedy Center spaces for visitors and staff. If you prefer to wear a mask, you are welcome to do so. See Kennedy Center’s complete COVID Safety Plan here.
The Day You Begin
World Premiere Kennedy Center Commission
Based on the Book by Jacqueline Woodson, Illustrated by Rafael López
Script by Jacqueline Woodson
Music and Lyrics by Toshi Reagon
Directed by Charlotte Brathwaite
Puppetry Design and Direction by Emma Wiseman
Dramaturg Amissa Miller; Costume Design by Trevor Bowen; Sound Design by Nick Hernandez; Casting Direction by Danica Rodriguez; Hair and Makeup Design by Priscilla Bruce; Choreography by Audrey Hailes; Artistic Production by Sean-Maurice Lynch; Executive Production by David Kilpatrick and Jordan LaSalle.