“Wheels on the Bus” Gets Young Gears Turning, at BACT, Berkeley
Nina Meehan Creates Baby Bus Driver School
by Rosa del Duca
From the start, it’s clear parents and toddlers are in for an interactive experience at Bay Area Children’s Theatre’s latest production, “Wheels on the Bus.” There are no seats in the theater. Instead, we are invited to pick a spot on the carpet, which butts right up against the “stage.” Then, Bus Driver Martha (nurturing, warm Amber Dickerson) explains that this isn’t a show. This is a school for bus drivers in training. And the bucket of items handed to toddlers on the way in isn’t just a random assortment of toys. It is a toolbox.
All this goes over my 18-month-old son River’s head, of course. Yet he and the other babies intuit that something special is about to happen, and they have an important role to play. The room is quiet and calm as an enormous bus trundles out and Martha and her male counterpart Lou (charismatic vocal standout Xavier Ali) try to find the best shape for a steering wheel. Lo and behold! Each baby has a steering wheel in the toolkit, ready to transform their spot on the carpet into a driver’s seat.
If you and your little one are big fans of the song “Wheels on the Bus,” beware that the tune is a small part of this production, and sung at a pace that is really too fast for kids to join. But the two wonderful actors—who play many people who ride the bus—provide the highlight and focus of the show.
The babies are introduced to a baker, who shows the kids how to make bread dough. The key is kneading the dough, and each toolbox has playdough to mash and squish, while the actors burst into song and dance. Next comes a teacher, who guides us through a catchy rendition of the ABC’s.
At one point, a runaway cat threads through the very young audience as a veterinarian chases her. To the delight of the children, they each have a soft, tiny creature to pet and cradle. Later, toddlers are invited on a bus route around the room, under a makeshift tunnel and past a collection of road signs, setting us in the heart of San Francisco. At every turn, children are encouraged to participate.
River and I had a prime spot at a corner, allowing us to see everyone’s reactions, as well as the action. An untrained observer might describe the kids’ faces as blank, bored, serious, or even scared. But as a parent, I know those unblinking expressions of transfixion and concentration mean the gears are turning, intensely. What a delight to watch each baby and toddler soak it all in, and rise to the challenge of joining, too.
At one point, River melted backward until his head was cradled in the crook of my arm. He wasn’t sleepy or distracted. He was simply overstimulated, but not enough to loosen the grip on his tub of playdough. He watched the rest of the performance sidelong, not daring to miss a thing.
If you’re looking for a fantastic first theater experience for your baby or toddler, look no further than “Wheels on the Bus,” recommended for children six months to three. But in this mother’s estimation, four-year-olds will get a kick out of it too.
“Wheels on the Bus” —conceived and written by Executive Artistic Director Nina Meehan, directed by Hannah Dworkin, music & lyrics by Austin Zumbro, by Bay Area Children’s Theatre (BACT). Info: bactheatre.org
Cast: Xavier Ali and Amber Dickerson.
Berkeley, through February 3, 2020, at Berkeley Theater Center, 2055 Center Street.
San Francisco, opens February 8, 2020, at Children’s Creativity Museum, 221 Fourth Street.