Milo Cramer’s delightful solo musical School Pictures, part of a festival of new one person shows running in repertory at Playwrights Horizons, is wildly inventive, hilarious funny, and extremely insightful about adolescence, class, over-privilege and the New York education system. Almost entirely sung throughout, School Pictures tells us in a series of 11 songs about Cramer’s experiences working as a private tutor in NYC after school with mostly rich, brilliant students who are damaged by their parents – and their own – expectations. All of them hope to get into one of the eight elite specialized high schools for which they will need the SHSAT (Specialized High School Admissions Test) or top colleges and the competition as both the parents and students know is fierce.
Designer Andreea Mincic has created a school-like environment with a yellow cork board wall as well as a yellow desk and matching chair. As Cramer sings us a song about each of ten students (fictionalized from his actual experiences), the colored papers stating their names posted on the wall are removed one by one. Accompanied by Cramer themself, the songs vary in form and structure. Beginning with a tiny ukulele, the instruments progress up to a keyboard. About three-quarters of the way through, Cramer takes time out to give an entertaining lecture on how the gifted and talented program creates one of the most segregated school systems in the country and where you live mostly decided where you get to go to high school. It is stunning and shocking although it will not be entirely news to all theatergoers.
In the structure of the show, the ten students appear to get older starting with a 12 year old and continuing until the last one is a senior in high school. Each one has a different problem and a different set of likes and dislikes in the ways of adolescents everywhere. In a voice that they often make sound like preadolescent students, Cramer sings first about Charlotte who needs two contrasting monologues for her audition for LaGuardia Performing Arts High School. The problem is that she hates most plays and novels.
Leigh is maintaining only a C minus in science and Cramer hopes to raise her grade at least somewhat. Terrance is 12 and has been expelled from an elite home school, but he is hard to like as he is so into designer clothes and hates theater, but is a subscriber at BAM. Jade who hates everything is missing her flash cards in order to study math and hopes her father will save her. Javier’s reason for not doing homework is that he doesn’t think he will live to see 30 due to climate change and nuclear war threatening the planet.
Divya has to write an essay responding to the question “Is Shakespeare’s Othello racist?” The problem is she does not know what is the right answer or what will impress her teacher whose approval is important to her. Faith hates reading, but Cramer has a solution to that. As Abby is a star athlete who has had a setback, her mother wants her to write strategic emails to every coach at relevant “private high schools” but what is Abby to say? Cramer tutors Jason from ages 13 to 18 and watches him develop and change but possibly not for the better. Dana begins as a brilliant math and science student but as a senior during the pandemic she won’t even leave her room for fear of making her grandmother ill.
Each of the story songs are poignant as well as hilarious as these young people deal with individual adolescent problems, the world around them and their parents’ unreal expectations. Cramer is always charming and amiable as they use varied voices to make each student sound different. The lyrics are inventive and unusual, each song in a different form. Smoothly directed by Morgan Green, School Pictures is that rare one-person show: satisfying and original as well as honest and revealing of child psychology as well as an honest teacher’s perspective.
School Pictures (performed in repertory with Amusements and Sad Boys in Harpy Land through December 17, 2023)
Peter J. Sharp Theater, 416 W. 42nd Street, in Manhattan
For tickets, call 212-279-4200 or visit http://www.playwrightshorizons.org
Running time: 60 minutes without an intermission