If a musical that explains the electoral college sounds like theater detention, skip the rest of this review. But you’ll miss out on an hour of fun in “Grace for President,” the world premiere now at Children’s Theatre of Charlotte.
Your child might tell you the story comes from a 2008 book by Kelly DiPucchio and illustrator LeUyen Pham, in which a third-grader looks at a wall full of presidential portraits and asks, “Where are the girls?” Grace decides to run for class president and, because uncontested elections take place only in dictatorships, an opponent is found: Thomas Cobb, a superachiever with an ego the size of his C.V.
What your child doesn’t yet know is the cleverness with which composer-librettist-playwright Joan Cushing has converted this narrative to a musical. We get a harmonized hymn to maleness in “Boys Boys Boys,” a plaintive song about participation in “My Vote Counts,” and a hip-hop showstopper in “The Democracy Rap” that borrows from the “Hamilton” playbook.
Cushing doesn’t always get facts straight. George Washington didn’t have wooden teeth; his dentures were made of ivory, bone and metal. More importantly, the United States is a republic, not a democracy; many Americans don’t know the difference, but she should. I was surprised to see a play set at Woodrow Wilson Elementary School; he fought for the League of Nations but was an unregenerate bigot. (He said of D.W. Griffith’s racist epic “The Birth of a Nation” – which came out when Wilson was president – that the movie was “like writing history with lightning, and my only regret is that it is all so terribly true.”)
Yet Cushing makes a lot of good points: We should vote for the person best qualified for the job, not the blowhard who makes empty promises with no intention of keeping them. Long-term policies, not short-term gratification, matter most. Shy or hesitant people need to be invited to participate, whether in a school cafeteria or life. And a single vote can sway an election, as all historians know.
She tells the story so rousingly that children in the audience were cheering for Grace and Thomas by the end, like nominators at a political convention. Director Michelle Long, aware that politics can be a staid subject, keeps things moving cleverly: At one point, the student portraying Washington gets “rowed” across the classroom on a movable desk by fellow students. Talia Robinson’s energy, a combination of exuberance and justifiable irritation, makes the progressive Grace a charmer.
Most crucially, Long cast actors white, black and brown to play the third-graders, reflecting Charlotte itself. I saw kids of all types, a substantial number wearing head scarves, urging their favorites on from the crowd. This is what America is meant to look like, whatever any politician may say.
‘Grace for President’
When: Oct. 21-Nov. 6, mostly at 7:30 p.m. Friday, 11 a.m. and 3 p.m. Saturday, 2 and 4 p.m. Sunday. Kelly DiPucchio will join Joan Cushing for a talkback after the Oct. 21 show and will sign books before and after the 11 a.m. performance on Oct. 22.
Where: ImaginOn, 300 E. Seventh St.