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We the People: America Rocks!

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

Jamie LaVerdiere, Abe Goldfarb, F. Michael Haynie, Colin Campbell McAdoo, and Badia Farha.
Photo by Joan Marcus.

Schoolhouse Rock! proved over 30 years ago that essential facts about United States governance don't have to be stultifying or (worse) tuneless. But today's kids can be excused for thinking that its animation and melodies are a bit old-hat—if not downright incomprehensible. To fill the void, as well as its annual "free summer theatre" slot, TheatreWorks USA is presenting We the People!: America Rocks!, a heavy-metal civics lesson that stuffs a full year of social studies into one hectic, 1776–meets–Rock of Ages hour.

Oh, bookwriter Joe Iconis has concocted a nominal story to tie together the works of nearly a dozen composers and lyricists, about 14-year-old Dawn Shapiro (Badia Farha) running for student council president, but not even an act of Congress (or of God) could make you care about it. The show's real point—and all of its entertainment value— lies in its irreverent yet reverential look at the country's inner machinery, presided over by an eminently qualified tour-guide quartet: George Washington (Colin Campbell McAdoo), John Adams (F. Michael Haynie), Thomas Jefferson (Jamie LaVerdiere), and Benjamin Franklin (Abe Goldfarb).

Washington narrates Adam Overett's plain-spoken but breathless exploration of the five components of "The First Amendment." Tommy Newman's "It's My Air Too" tackles the judiciary and the complex role of the Supreme Court. "King of the Ring," by Brad Alexander (music) and Kevin Del Aguila (lyrics), envisions the system of checks and balances as a three-way wrestling match between The Executive, The Legislator, and The Adjudicator. And "We in the House" (lyrics by Jordan Allen-Dutton and Erik Weiner, music by Mark Weiner) offers a sweeping, if simplified, view of how laws are passed (though the section about pushing through unpopular bills using Reconciliation must have been cut during previews).

The sets (Adam Koch), costumes (Lora LaVon), and even lights (Jeff Croiter) definitely evince a patriotic-rock-concert aesthetic in their eye-popping reliance on red, white, and blue. Director Gordon Greenberg and choreographer Michele Lynch keep the pace supersonic but unrushed throughout, and never let the concept flag—it's extremely rare that a "one-joke" premise can sustain itself this fully over an hour. Farha errs a bit on the functional side in her performance, but the four men are all in outstanding voice and spectacular at recasting dusty 18th-century figures as ultra-hip rock-idol sex symbols. (Though at the performance I attended I did worry a bit about McAdoo, who looked as though he was going to collapse from exhaustion near the end of "The First Amendment." Given that number's warp-speed proclivities, I can hardly blame him, but he was sweating more than King George III must have upon reading the Declaration of Independence.)

Through no fault of the actors, the Founding Fathers represent one of the biggest deficiencies of Iconis's book: it doesn't make any of the men a true individual. After the opening number, when they drop their instruments (drums, bass, guitar, and—uh oh— a keytar) and doff their powdered wigs, they become essentially interchangeable. There's a bit of business about Adams being conceited, but that's it—that none of the men looks even a little like his character's most famous portraits also doesn't help. More distinguishing characteristics would do even more to make history come alive.

The other major problem is more structural, if unavoidable. Trying to cover so much ground in 60 minutes is always going to be tough, and no matter how hard the show tries, much of it still seems like an overly dense survey course. For example, it would probably take an expert two hours to explain the intricacies of the electoral college; no way can these—or any—writers do it in two minutes within an otherwise unrelated song.

Even so, this is an upbeat, drum-beating good time that won't scare off kids or make them angry about actually (gasp) learning stuff during the summer. I suppose it's possible kids may learn more in the same amount of time at school, but We the People: America Rocks! will undoubtedly be even more fun and, since you're not taxed for attendance, comes much closer to being truly free.

We the People: America Rocks!
Through August 13
Lucille Lortel Theater, 121 Christopher Street between Bleecker and Bedford Streets
Tickets for WE THE PEOPLE: AMERICA ROCKS! are FREE and available on a first-come, first-served basis in-person at the Lucille Lortel Theatre Box Office (121 Christopher St.) starting at 9:30 a.m. weekdays and 1 p.m. Sundays. There is a limit of four (4) tickets per adult.
WE THE PEOPLE: AMERICA ROCKS! is recommended for children ages eight (8) and up.
The performance schedule is as follows:
Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday and Friday - 10:30 a.m. and 1 p.m.
Thursday - 10:30 a.m., 1 p.m. and 6 p.m.
Sunday - 2 p.m.