"It's like magic" whispers a small voice as Gregory Jbara reads aloud from Creepy Pair of Underwear by Aaron Reynolds and Peter Brown. The adults in the room, charmed by the child's astonishment, glance at one another with expressions of sweet sentimentally, place palms over hearts and silently mouth "awww".
It IS magical! There is jaw-dropping wonderment for the children in the tenacious pair of green-hued underwear Jasper Rabbit so desperately tries to eradicate. And there is a collective, palpable sense of assurance amongst the watchful adults in the room that childhood innocence endures despite the chaos blaring outside our windows.
We take in the small interactions; one boy joyfully turning to high-five his best friend when the cross-eyed, Frankensteinian underwear inexplicably returns from a sojourn to China, two children holding hands for reassurance as Jasper Rabbit tiptoes into his cavernous bathroom to find "THEY WERE BACK!", and the unbridled, contagious laughter rising from the children whose gaze is fixed in turns on Greg, the ASL interpreter and the book's film noir inspired illustrations.
Stepping into this place where magic happens takes some preparation. It also requires the right players. And in that respect we were certainly in good hands with Tony Award Winner Gregory Jbara. In 2015, Greg was the very first performer to "raise his hand" when I asked if any of my Broadway friends would be interested in joining my fledgling program. After his initial visit he wrote in my memory book, "Please include me whenever you feel I might be helpful". And I have! Greg christened Broadway Books Upper Class the following year and came back this school year to usher in Year Four of Broadway Books First Class.
As the first guest artist ever to venture into my classroom Greg's early visit helped me establish the structural framework and flow that other visits would follow. Back then, he read a funny story of veggie haunting entitled Creepy Carrots, so this time he returned to read the sequel. This time he read for two classes - preschool and second grade - of energetic children. This time, he remarked, the program had found its rhythm, flowing seamlessly from one segment to another (with some nice additions, such as sharing childhood photos of each performer). And although things are running smoothly and I've come to feel confident and comfortable in my role as host and facilitator, the unexpected does happen.
As Greg was answering questions about the character he played in Billy Elliott the Musical - click here to listen to his show-stopping tearjerker Deep Into the Ground - we were interrupted by an announcement over the school PA system, "Attention, this is a soft lockdown drill. Please take appropriate action." My first thought was, "UGH! Why now?! We are in the middle of something!" But, we all diligently swung into action. Lights out, door locked, children and adults huddled in a corner of the room out of sight.
The soft twinkling of the still-illuminated Christmas lights around the bulletin boards provided a comforting glow as we silently waited. The minutes passed and children started signing to one another - an advantage these students have over other school children in similar situations. Then the whispered voices engaging Greg in conversation. For his part, Greg seemed intrigued to take part in this drill and remained good-natured.
I felt bad about taking up his time in this manner, but found consolation in the thought that, perhaps, it could somehow inform his character on Blue Bloods. Greg plays Deputy Commissioner for Public Information (DCPI) Garrett Moore on the hit CBS police procedural drama. In fact, he was in NYC shooting the series and found time in his busy schedule to fit us in. That dedication to freely giving back to the community and the joy it brought to everyone present reminds me that pockets of goodness still exist in these divisive times.
Once the lockdown was lifted we returned to the meeting area and Greg complemented the children on how well they responded to the lockdown, my 4-year-old student Jefferson stood up and shyly asked, "Can you sing for us?"
Greg replied, "Can I sing for you? I would love to sing for you."
But first he educated them with little insider information about the audition process.
"As an actor we audition for people to get jobs to be in shows and sometimes when you do a musical they'll say, 'Here's a couple of songs from this musical. Here's the music, go home, learn it and come to the audition and sing these songs from the show that the character you're auditioning for would have to sing if you got the job'. Sometimes, they say, 'Don't worry about the music from the show. Bring us a song that you like to sing or a song that you sing a lot so we can hear something you're comfortable with and know very well. And then we can decide if we want to see you again.'"
Greg sang us a song he's been auditioning with since the very beginning of his career. It's one that he'd learned as a student at Juilliard and sang during his first audition to play Frankenstein's monster in Have I Got a Girl for You! The song - Have You Met Miss Jones? - was followed by Love is Sweeping the Country (his audition song for Dirty Rotten Scoundrels) and Chimp in a Suit.
Once again I observed the watchful, interested faces of the children as they sat soaking in the music, the message, and the moment. Each song followed by hands clapping or raised in the air, waving applause as is typical in Deaf culture. Greg graciously met the requests for more until we shifted gears by presenting him with the gifts we prepared (a Broadway Books First Class t-shirt and a copy of Creepy Pair of Underwear signed by all of the students).
I've experienced times in my life when I've tried to hold onto a moment even as I knew it must end, so I realized with sadness that our visit was winding down. Greg provided lasting memories for each child with his visit. Now was the time to make those memories more tangible with a book for each child to take home, signed by Greg.
The thank you cards the children wrote capture their gratitude. "We loved talking to you. We are super lucky you came." "I love the song you sang us and I like your voice. It is amazing!" "Thank you for coming today. I hope you can come again soon!"
The children were delighted when, a couple of weeks later, we received a video message from Greg saying how much he enjoyed reading the cards when he returned home to California. From start to finish, Greg's visit was a wonderful way to begin Year Four of the program.
A Visit with Gregory Jbara
Broadway Books First Class