Tag Archives: American history

To protect and preserve

Yolanda London, Eric Boudreau and Colin Ross in Childsplay's "Rock the Presidents"

With all the political bantering these days, I sometimes worry that the office of president isn’t getting the respect it deserves. So I was thrilled when Childsplay’s Sunday preview of “Rock the Presidents” at Tempe Center for the Arts opened with a rap number called “Hail to the Chiefs” — which recounts the name of each president while reinforcing our duty as Americans to protect and preserve the highest office in the land.

Think what you will of any given president, but know that the office is worthy of respect and dignity, and we do ourselves no favors by attempting to diminish it. “Rock the Presidents” is a perfectly non-partisan look at those who have served, which makes clear both their humanity and their dedication to the nation. It’s easy to sit back and criticize, and so little that’s worthy comes of it.

Better to teach our children to honor those who step up and lead, and to remind them that they too have the power to make a difference. Public service is a noble calling. And being an informed, engaged citizen is essential. These are the messages conveyed throughout “Rock the Presidents,” a musical salute to all 43 presidents featuring book and lyrics by Dwayne Hartford and music by Sarah Roberts.

Roberts plays guitar on the soundtrack, as does Jason Brown. Other musicians include Jonathan Ivie (piano and keyboard), Scott Miner (bass), Mark Stolper (drums), David Dickinson (Violin) and Scott Leader (ukelele and guitar). Jonathan Ivie is musical director for the work, which features everything from rock and rap to country and calypso. Think concert meets classroom.

The “Rock the Presidents” set, designed by Holly Windingstad, is a mix of stately and sparkly red, white and blue elements with a giant screen in the center onto which images of presidents and related fare from speeches to statues are projected throughout the show thanks to projection design by Limitrophe Films. It adds a fabulously nostalgic feel while upping the show’s educational value for children and teens.

Eric Boudreau, Yolanda London and Colin Ross rapping "Hail to the Chiefs"

Eric Bourdeau (Harry), Yolanda London (Amy) and Colin Ross (Ted) open “Rock the Presidents” donning black secret service gear by costume designer D. Daniel Hollingshead as they appear to sing into tiny spy mics hidden in the ends of their sleeves. They’re capable quick change artists who also rock general, cowboy, hippie and other vibes during the 90-minute gig that features choreography by Molly Lajoie. Think line dancing to shades of disco, all done in good taste.

Director Anthony Runfola strikes a perfect balance between rock concert and musical theater production. Lighting design by Tim Monson plays up the rock star vibe, as do cast member shenanigans with standing mics, high fives with children seated in the front row and shouts like “Thank you Tempe!” Their first crowd laughed and clapped with enthusiasm, rising to a standing ovation after the final number titled “Are You a President-to-be?”

The fact that every American president to date has been a man isn’t lost on Hartford, who included plenty of dialogue and lyrics hailing women who’ve made a difference while encouraging girls in the audience to aspire to the country’s highest office. But the favorite number by far, which closes the first act, was a little ditty on presidential pets from ordinary to odd called “They Got a Dog.”

The second act opens with “Not Made of Stone,” performed against the backdrop of an image of Mount Rushmore. It’s an ode to each president’s humanity which, when coupled with “I’m Not All Bad,” reminds folks that every president has both accomplishments and failures. Presidents, you see, are people too. In many ways, they’re like me and you.

Presidents we’ve lost are remembered in “What Could Have Been?,” while the contributions made by presidents after leaving office are celebrated in “I Am More Than Four Years.” Two rounds of “The Presi-tron” test audience member knowledge of presidential trivia, and “Who in the World is Millard Fillmore?” pays tribute to presidents too often forgotten.

Colin Ross in Rock the Presidents, being performed in Tempe through March 4

The song “John and Tom,” which praises the mutual civility demonstrated by John Adams and Thomas Jefferson despite conflicting ideas, feels most relevant for today’s society seeped in supercharged sniping. We don’t have to agree on everything to get along, or to get things done.

My own favorite song is “The Only Thing We Have to Fear,” inspired by FDR’s first inaugural address. Hartford says his greatest hope is that folks will be entertained by “Rock the Presidents.” That’s clearly the case. But I suspect something more will happen too, as those who “Rock the Presidents” with Childsplay reaffirm their responsibility to protect and preserve.

— Lynn

Note: The creative team for “Rock the Presidents” also includes Christopher Neumeyer (sound design). Samantha Monson serves as stage manager and Jenny Millinger serves as dramaturge. David Saar is Childsplay’s founder and artistic director, and Steve Martin serves as managing director.

Coming up: Let’s Play!

Photos: Heather Hill

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Once upon a witch hunt

“The Crucible” by Arthur Miller is widely read by high school students, and the most fortunate among them have the opportunity to bring the tale to life on stage.

The Marcos de Niza Theatre production (directed by Patrick McChesney) opened Wed, Nov. 16, at the MdN Auditorium in Tempe — and runs through Sat., Nov. 19. 

 Program notes describe “The Crucible” as  “a dark drama about a terrible period in American history… the Salem witch trials” — and offer a summary of the story that goes something like this:

A small group of Puritan teenage girls in 1692 Salem, Massachusetts are caught dancing and conjuring love potions to catch young men. The girls invent stories about Satan invading their bodies, forcing them to take part in certain rites.

The play’s main characters include a young farmer named John Proctor and his wife. Also a young servant girl whose infatuation with the farmer leads her to accuse the wife of witchcraft.

Greedy preachers and landowners complicate the situation and hysteria soon spreads as “good people of pious nature and responsible temper begin condemning other good people to the gallows.”

Proctor brings the servant girl to court, hoping she’ll admit her lie so his wife will be saved. Instead, “the monstrous course of bigotry and deceit turns all accusations to him and ultimately sentences him to death.” 

The program notes that Miller wrote “The Crucible” as a social commentary on McCarthy-era “witch hunts” against so-called communists during the 1950s. It’s a profound and perpetually popular work because, sadly, we seem always to divide ourselves into the hunters and the hunted.

“The Crucible” received the 1953 Tony Award for best play, and feels no less relavant today — especially in the hands of our youth. They know better than most just how rapidly rumors spread, and can help us all embrace our own power to prevent and stop them.

— Lynn

Note: Click here to watch the school’s YouTube promo for “The Crucuble.” Upcoming events at Marcos de Niza include a fall dance show (Dec. 2), an orchestra concert (Feb. 22), a spring musical (“All Shook Up” March 7-10), a band pops concert (May 9) and more. Check their website for details.

Coming up: Thespian tales, More fun with “I-Spy” photos, The fine art of recycling, School shows & budget woes

Chicano studies — with a twist

The ASU Herberger Institute School of Theatre and Film presents Zoot Suit by Luis Valdez at the Lyceum Theatre on the Tempe campus through Oct. 22

I made plans to see “Zoot Suit” at Arizona State University after learning that a young woman my daughter Jennifer went to grade school with would be performing in the play.

Kaleena Newman performs the roles of Newsboy and Zooter in the production that runs through Oct. 22 at ASU’s Lyceum Theatre. After chatting with Newman on campus one day, Jennifer decided to tag along with me to see the show.

The other lure was Andrés Alcalá, an associate artist with Childsplay who directs “Zoot Suit” for ASU’s School of Theatre and Film. I’m convinced that following the fine folks of Childsplay is the surest way to find fab theater in the Valley.

Jennifer studies cultural anthropology and has long been fascinated by events surrounding World War II. “Zoot Suit” by playwright Luis Valdez is set in 1940s Los Angeles, and it makes one point abundantly clear: As one war raged abroad, another raged at home. It was a war against racism — and it’s yet to be won.

The theme of fear fueled by prejudice and the press is still relevant today (Photo: Rod Amez as Henry Reyna)

Close to home we see it in anti-immigration legislation and calls for educators in Tucson to end a long tradition of teaching Chicano studies. In “Zoot Suit,” we witness a gross miscarriage of justice as Chicano youth are arrested and jailed for a crime they didn’t commit — in part because of fear fueled by a fashion statement.

The work reflects something every good student of WWII history knows — that prejudice against those of Japanese, Jewish or African American heritage was also rampant. Be forewarned, if you take younger family members to see “Zoot Suit,” that they’ll hear not only plenty of cursing but also a single use of the “N-word.”

The Broadway production of “Zoot Suit” ran for just 41 performances in 1979. Edward James Olmos, Dexter’s newest nemesis on the Showtime television series, performed the role of narrator El Pachuco on both stage and screen. The 1982 film version of “Zoot Suit” featured Tyne Daly, seen recently in “Master Class” on Broadway, as activist Alice Bloomfield.

ASU’s production of “Zoot Suit” features Nathan Delatorre as El Pachuco and Rod Amez as Henry Reyna, a young man accused of murder the night before he’s set to report for military duty. The cast of 21 delivers a strong ensemble performance that’s powerful evidence of the university’s stellar theater program.

Every element of this production is strong — especially direction by Andrés Alcalá, choreography by Adrian Hernandez, scenic design by Alayne Levine, costume design by Connie Furr-Soloman and lighting design by Anthony Jannuzzi. Infusing masterful media design by Boyd Branch transforms the production into something truly exceptional and rare.

“Zoot Suit” feels a bit like “West Side Story” — minus the vocal numbers, plus a heavy dose of politics. It’s an entertaining work of social justice theater, but its dialogue too often spoon-feeds the audience. Of course, a spoon would have come in handy after the show as Jennifer treated me to gloriously gooey pretzels from Mellow Mushroom on Mill Avenue.

I’ve long enjoyed outings to ASU Gammage for touring Broadway productions with my youngest daughter Lizabeth, often followed by In–N-Out Burger runs. But having Jennifer join me for an ASU theater production followed by pretzels dripping in honey made for an exciting new twist.

— Lynn

Note: “Zoot Suit,” which opens the 2011-12 Arizona Centennial Season for ASU’s MainStage productions, is part of the CALA Festival. Click here to learn about additional MainStage offerings, and here for more information on the festival. Click here to explore New Carpa Theater, which “focuses on Latino and multicultural theater works.”

Coming up: Going green on Broadway, Dora explores downtown Phoenix

Remembering 1911

Head to the Phoenix Theatre Little Theatre this weekend to see ASA perform TRIANGLE by Laurie Brooks and to enjoy an exhibit of related student artwork

Students from Arizona School for the Arts are performing “Triangle,” a play by Laurie Brooks, through May 1. It’s a remembrance of lives lived and lost at a New York City factory during 1911.

The Triangle Shirt Waist Fire took the lives of 146 people, mostly young immigrant women who worked in deplorable conditions for unfair wages. Factory doors were locked during working hours to prevent theft.

When a fire broke out on the top floors, workers were unable to escape. Fire truck ladders were too short to reach many of the victims. Some chose leaping out of windows over tortuous death by fire. 

It’s weighty material for a high school theater production, but ASA students did it justice during Friday night’s performance. Brooks’ writing is rich with vivid detail, and made me feel at times like I was right there on that factory floor.

Several elements essential to setting the mood for this story are executed by students. Nathan Naimark, who also performs in the show, delivers powerful lighting design. Costume design by Sophia Uptadel hints at the subtle ways workers were similar yet unique. Properties design is by Anika Larson.

Scenic design by Samantha Boswick, who teaches theatre production studies at ASA, features scaffolding draped with tattered pieces of fabric that convey the dreariness of life for many industrial age workers.

Sound design by A. Beck — which combines period piano music, the sound of a factory whistle and actor vocalizations simulating humming machines — is equally effective. Beck is theatre arts coordinator at ASA and serves as artistic director for this production of “Triangle.”

Themes pulled from the lives of 1911 men and women feel remarkably relevant 100 years later. Parental expectations. Sibling rivalry. Teen yearnings for independence. Gender roles. Poverty. Illegal immigration. Worker rights. Corporate responsibility.

The year 1911 — in the hands of playwright Laurie Brooks and Arizona School for the Arts — doesn’t feel all that far away. That may be the most powerful lesson of all.

— Lynn

Note: Those who attend “Triangle” this weekend (Sat, 7pm or Sun, 2pm) can also enjoy related artwork by students in ASA’s introduction to theatre class, which is exhibited in the lobby of the Phoenix Theatre Little Theatre. Click here to learn more about the Triangle factory and fire.

Coming up: The smell of childhood, Circle time

Real drama in Wisconsin

Citizens opposing proposed changes to collective bargaining options in Wisconsin have been protesting at the State Capitol in Madison since mid-February. For folks unfamiliar with American theater history, it might feel like the first time high drama has come to Wisconsin.

But those who know the story of acting duo Alfred Lunt & Lynn Fontanne, who graced American stages from the 1920s through the 1950s, know that plenty of drama took place at their summer home — an estate called “Ten Chimneys” that’s now a historical landmark.

This weekend is your last chance to see Arizona Theatre Company perform "Ten Chimneys" (Photo by Ed Flores)

It’s high on my list of places to tour if I ever find myself in that neck of the woods — a small town called Genessee Depot that’s just 60 miles from Madison. In the meantime, I can get my Lunt & Fontanne fix from Arizona Theatre Company’s production of “Ten Chimneys.”

This world-premiere by playwright Jeffrey Hatcher, with direction by David Ira Goldstein, is being performed through Sun, March 6 at the Herberger Theater Center in downtown Phoenix. The uber-eager can go online for a play guide covering all things Lunt & Fontanne, which I read with rapt attention from front to back.

The play “Ten Chimeys” imagines Lunt & Fontanne working at their summer home to prepare for roles in Chekhov’s “The Sea Gull.” I’m especially grateful now that I attended a production of this Chekhov classic during my last trip to Pepperdine University in Malibu.

Next time you’re glued to the television watching something mediocre that passes for real drama, remember the tale of “Ten Chimneys.” Then make your way to the Herberger Theater Center for a magic blend of classic and contemporary theater.

Because that, my friends, is real drama.

— Lynn

Note: Click here to learn about a new PBS “American Experience” titled “Triangle Fire” which examines historical events and issues related to labor unions. (Students from Arizona School for the Arts perform the play “Triangle” next month). Another episode titled “Hoover Dam” also examines these issues. Click here to enjoy a taste of the “Odd Wisconsin” exhibit at the Wisconsin Historical Society.

Coming up: A plethora of puppets, Theater tales from Scottsdale Community College

Musings on modern dance

The modern dance of Bill T. Jones is heading to ASU Gammage (Photo: Russell Jenkins)

I got a wistful feeling talking one morning with a couple in New York City who work with a modern dance company that’ll be performing here in early March.

Jennifer Nugent hails from Florida, while Paul Matteson hails from Maine. They collaborate, perform and tour with the Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Dance Company, a Harlem-based company with a truly diverse repetoire.

I was a modern dancer for a few brief years early in my college career, and our conversation left me pining for a love I rarely pause long enough to remember that I’ve lost.

I’m plumper now than I was then. Less responsive to the world in physical ways. More sedentary and stuck. Less connected to those parts of us beyond spoken and written word, and the moments we communicate in more subtle but perhaps more profound ways.

You wouldn’t know, by seeing me dance today, that it had once been such a part of me. But it’s clearly a part of Matteson and Nugent , though I suspect they long ago moved past thinking of dance (or life) in terms of separate parts.

Nugent started ballet, tap and jazz lessons at the age of seven, and began dancing on cruise ships at age 17. It wasn’t until age 20 that she met her first modern dance teacher — Barbara Sloan.

Scene from Fondly Do We Hope...Fervently Do We Pray (Photo: Russell Jenkins)

Nugent exudes gratitude while sharing a long list of esteemed dance teachers and mentors, including Bill T. Jones — whose work she’ll be performing with fellow dancers as the Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Dance Company presents “Fondly Do We Hope…Fervently Do We Pray” at ASU Gammage for a single March 5 performance.

Matteson did “a lot of sports in high school” before finding his bliss “by accident” after signing up for an “Introduction to Dance” class in college. He left college for a time, but went on to earn a dance degree.

Modern dance, reflects Nugent, is “sometimes execution, sometimes improvisation” — making it sound like a beautiful blend of passion and precision. “In modern dance, you can be a ballerina, a clown, cool, pedestrian, primal.”

I’m especially intrigued by Nugent’s love affair with modern dance knowing that so many parents rush their young daughters off to ballet, tap or jazz dance lessons with nary a consideration of other dance forms. (Or the lure of movement for their sons.)

Scene from Fondly Do We Hope...Fervently Do We Pray (Photo: Russell Jenkins)

She speaks eloquently of modern dance as a means to “being engaged with other people in a more grappling way.” Nugent clearly relishes the “variety” afforded by modern dance — and enjoys merging its “human quality” with its “highly technical quality.”

Matteson sounds equally smitten with his craft. “I love that there’s a collaborative component to modern dance,” he muses. He describes the piece they’ll soon perform in Tempe as “gorgeous movement material.”

Of course, we’ll only enjoy the work if we manage to let go for a time of those slight but familiar movements from couch to fridge, from remote control to laptop.

Matteson describes “Fondly Do We Hope…Fervently Do We Pray” as “a meditation on history” — which sound infinitely more intriguing than the sound bites of selective memory we too easily settle for in other mediums.

Still, it’s a far cry from one man’s interpretation of past events. Nugent says the piece “looks at what is going on in the world today” — including all the rights so many are still fighting for.

Some of its content, notes Matteson, is very literal. Yet much, including the words of Walt Whitman, is poetic. I suspect that the layers of language, movement and ideas inspire audience members to consider their own ways of thinking about and being in the world.

Scene from Fondly Do We Hope... Fervently Do We Pray (Photo: Paul Goode)

You’ll likely leave the performance pondering your own movements of meaning. Who are we? How are we similar? How are we different? How would we be shaped in a different time? How are we shaped now? These questions, shares Nugent, confront artists and audience members, alike.

We settle too often for ordinary. Works like “Fondly Do We Hope…Fervently Do We Pray” invite — even demand — that we do more. The artistry and atheleticism of modern dance have much to offer in a day and age that so glorifies the gadget.

Matteson and Nugent agree that “Fondly Do We Hope…Fervently Do We Pray” is appropriate for audiences of all ages. Their five-year-old daughter Mieke, whose career aspirations have included being a ballerina, teacher and scientist — has already begun watching the work.

Something tells me she’ll grow up to be all three — and much more.

— Lynn

Note: Several Valley dance companies and schools offer modern dance training. Click here to learn about the work of Frances Cohen and Center Dance Ensemble, the resident modern dance company of the Herberger Theater Center in Phoenix.

Coming up: Seeing double, Ps and Qs, Oh the horror!, Of cats in hats

Theater meets history

I’m surrounded by history buffs. My husband James and 19-year-old daughter Jennifer seem to always have their nose in a good history or philosophy book, while both our daughters are loving the historical fiction books they got as holiday gifts.

This show will delight history, music and theater buffs

I thought I might be able to escape for a few hours to enjoy opening night of the Phoenix production of “Woody Guthrie’s American Song” presented by Arizona Theatre Company. But that’s like trying to avoid trees by strolling through a forest.

Turns out I sat next to a very gracious history professor and his wife, and met a 5th grade history phenom in the Herberger Theater Center lobby after the show.

I sort of knew what I was getting into, I suppose — since “Woody Guthrie’s American Song” covers the life and times of wordsmith and folk musician Woody Guthrie, who traveled from Oklahoma to California, New York and plenty of other parts.

I was surprised that I didn’t see more young people at the show. Other than a pair of teen boys seated a few rows behind me and a boy who looked to be about five years old seated just ahead of me, the crowd was mostly folks around my age (give or take a good decade).

Having once homeschooled my children, and having volunteered more than 1,000 hours in their traditional classrooms, I always have an eye out for those “teachable moments” in which experiences create rich learning opportunities.

I’d have had a ball taking my kids to see “Woody Guthrie’s American Song” when they were younger (my husband will probably take one or more of them before the show ends its run on his birthday, Jan 16).

The show features a cast of five and a three-piece band set against a backdrop that mirrors life in the Dust Bowl or along the railroad tracks, complete with a giant projection screen on each side showing black and white photos of the times.

Woody Guthrie's American Song, an ATC production at the Herberger Theater, features strong storytelling and moving music amidst a beautiful set with lovely lighting

Immigrant laborers and their children living in squalor. Job seekers moving from town to town in search of honest pay. The sticker on Guthrie’s guitar that denounces fascism. The sign offering tent space for 15 cents a week.

In an age when issues of immigrant rights and unemployment are so prominent on the political landscape, shows like “Woody Guthrie’s American Song” offer insights into ways these issues have played out in earlier times.

It’s easy to imagine coupling this show with a trip to explore one of Arizona’s history museums or a visit to the Musical Instrument Museum in Phoenix — where kids can learn more about the guitar, banjo, fiddle, mandolin, piano, harmonica and other instruments played during the show.

There’s a magnificent study guide for “Woody Guthrie’s American Song” on the Arizona Theatre Company website so parents and teachers can learn more about related topics before attending. I bought a loosely bound copy at the show for just $5, and I’m still having fun combing through it.

I ended up giving my program to a lovely woman who was singing on a corner near the theater with her service dog named “Charlie.” Like Guthrie, she’d placed a hat on the ground for tips — though Charlie seemed to be eyeing it in search of something more rewarding, like food.

Turns out she’s one of the “sopranos” referred to in a recent New York Times review of Ib Andersen’s “The Nutcracker” — though Alastair Macaulay’s dismissive comments have not, to her credit, disuaded her from her craft.

But back to all things history and theater. History, like theater, is a living experience. It never stands still and none of us escapes being part of it, though some folks choose to take a more active — even activist — role than others.

I’m hoping that Jacob, the 5th grade history buff I met after the show, will get in touch with me. I’m certain you’d enjoy his thoughts on the show more than anything I have to offer.

The mom in me was particularly struck by his observation that American youth take a great deal for granted. So many hoard high-tech gadgets unaware that others are hunting for a way to put low-tech food on the table.

Jacob is a young man we can all be proud to create history, and theater, alongside of. I imagine he’d have a mighty fine time riding the rails with Guthrie.

Kids like Jacob give me hope that future generations might do a better job of separating want from need.

— Lynn

Note: I often invite young people to contact me with their thoughts about shows they’ve seen — and am also hoping to hear from a young girl I met at the Herberger while she was there to see “Respect: A Musical Journey of Women” with her father and sister.

Coming up: New year, new exhibits