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 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.
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.
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