The setup: Last season, Childsplay premièred a new musical, Rock the Presidents, with book and lyrics by the company's playwright in residence, Dwayne Hartford. It's back for some local performances and a second nationwide tour to kick off election season.
The execution: As you may recall from the South Park episode about the "Don't Smoke" assembly, nothing's weaker than adults trying to be fresh, hip, and cool when they're totally not. The bona fide arena-level rock 'n' rollness of Rock the Presidents, on the other hand, is matched only by how sneakily educational it is.
Turns out that the cast I saw last weekend is not the one that you'll see the next two weekends at Tempe Center for the Arts, but there's no reason to think that the folks pictured above won't do as super a job as Eric Boudreau, Alexandra Ncube, and Colin Ross did. Jonathan Ivie's intense musical supervision of an excellent recording of Sarah Roberts' solid, genre-spanning score is the bedrock of the spectacle. It helps gloss over some awkwardly worded lyrics like:
Who knows what's coming 'round the bend? Up in the White House you might end.
Meanwhile, the almost entirely sung show is so educational that you want to take it out behind the middle school and get it pregnant -- because yeah, sometimes that does happen to chicks with good grades. Opening number "Hail to the Chiefs" alone could get you most of the way to Final Jeopardy, as it lists all 44 chief executives in a mnemonically fierce rhyming format.
Molly Lajoie's simple but head-banging choreography meshes beautifully with D. Daniel Hollingshead's sleek, effective costumes. The three performers start out in skinny jeans, patriotically-hued sneakers, and black shades and blazers, introducing them as timeless Secret Service agents (so it makes sense that they know scads of trivia about all the Presidents). Then they changed jackets, shirts, and hats from time to time to suggest a particular POTUS or pump up a wild production number. The action never stops.
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Limitrophe Films has designed a swell series of projections that fit beautifully into Holly Windingstad's glitzy, amped-up set -- it's like a party convention with more fog and computerized chaser spotlights. From a depiction of Andrew Jackson as a video game avatar to a montage of White House pets to a zippy audience-participation game show, The Pres-i-tron, the screens are another brilliantly realized component of the production. The verdict: Rock the Presidents is an upbeat, nonpartisan experience that's vastly and sincerely entertaining for both kids and grownups.
Rock the Presidents continues in weekend matinees only through Sunday, September 23, at Tempe Center for the Arts, 700 West Rio Salado Parkway.Tickets are $12 to $25; call 480-350-2822 or order online.