Raising Richmond: What would Young TJ do?

Be awesome and relevant and inspire your kids to do great things, that’s what!

America has problems now…but it’s up to all of you to see that it grows better and stronger every day.

An elderly Thomas Jefferson speaks those words to his grandsons in one of the final moments of Children’s Theatre of Virginia’s 2012-2013 season opener, Young Tom Jefferson–but it’s clearly a message for the show’s audience as well.

Quite the timely challenge, no? And, one would think, quite a big one to issue to a theater full of elementary school-age children.

But you know what I say? Good on you, Virginia Repertory Theatre1 because that move is exactly what helps this production stand out from other efforts in the world of children’s theater–particularly those attempting to impart a little historical knowledge unto their young audiences.

Written by Bruce Miller, Virginia Rep’s Artistic Director, Young Tom Jefferson is an historical musical following the life of Jefferson from his birth in Virginia to the night he wrote the Declaration of Independence. But instead of simply sticking a bunch of kids in a theater and saying, “Children! Let us tell you the tale of the great Thomas Jefferson,” this show gives them a bit more context–and helps them understand that no one exists in a vacuum. They quickly learn that (at least according to this show) much of what made Thomas Jefferson great came from what he learned from his relationships with other people.

The play opens with Thomas Jefferson Randolph and his two brothers2 begrudgingly accompanying their mother, Martha, on a visit to Monticello to help her father (that would be Thomas Jefferson) commemorate the 50th anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence. While they love their grandfather dearly, the Randolph brothers aren’t exactly stoked on “being born to a legend.” Meanwhile young TJR doesn’t see the point in looking back to something that happened half a century ago. As you can imagine, when Grandpa TJ3 gets word of his progeny’s bellyaching, he decides it’s high-time the little whipper-snapper get a better understanding of what really went down–both in his own life and in the United States as a whole–in the years leading up to American Revolution.

What follows is essentially a series of flashbacks to key points in Thomas Jefferson’s life: the influence of his parents; the loss of his father; his life as a student at William and Mary; and his historic encounters with key figures like Patrick Henry, George Wythe, and James Madison. Now I know what you’re thinking: “You expect my kid to sit through that snoozefest?” But snoozefest it’s not. Snappy dialogue and lyrics, along with informative but concise narrative segues between scenes, keep things moving at a steady pace—and show that Miller has a solid grasp on what it takes to hold a young audience’s attention for a full hour.

Leading the six-person cast (each actor takes on two or three roles) is Matt Shofner as Thomas Randolph Jefferson and Young Tom Jefferson. Shofner’s energetic presence and strong singing make him the ideal focal point for this type of show; the kids couldn’t seem to take their eyes off of him. Meanwhile, Drew Seigla is a complete delight as the self-proclaimed “pain in the rear” Patrick Henry. His duet (“The Duell”) with Shofner was the high point of the show for me–I mean, how could you not love a song that explains the circumstances leading up to the Revolutionary War in what basically boils down to a colonial rap battle?4 Other standouts were Adam Turk as Dr. William Small, one of Jefferson’s professors at William and Mary, and Paul S. Major as Lieutenant Governor of the Virginia Colony, Francis Fauquier. When Seigla (as George Wythe) joins these two to serenade Shofner’s Thomas Jefferson with “At the Top,” it is an absolute riot.

Clever lyrics and larger-than-life characters aside, the end of Young Tom Jefferson is what really got me—what really made me excited that kids in Richmond have the chance to see this show. When Tom sits down and rolls up his sleeves to write the Declaration of Independence, he’s flanked by his fellow actors performing a medley of the show’s songs. As this happens, the audience is reminded of the events and relationships in Tom’s life that got him to that moment. Sure, it’s totally sentimental and completely glosses over the more controversial and scandalous aspects of Jefferson’s history, but it’s not like Virginia Repertory was shooting for an expose here. After all, it’s children’s theatre. And what kid doesn’t need to hear that one person (or one group of people) really can change things? What kid doesn’t need to hear that hard work matters? Dammit, I’m just going to say it: I was actually inspired.5 I bet your kids will, too.

Young Tom Jefferson continues at Virginia Repertory Theatre’s Willow Lawn location through October 27th with 10:00 AM and 2:00 PM performances on Saturday and a 2:00 PM show on Sunday. Field trip performances are scheduled for 10:30 AM on Thursday and Friday. Stop by the website for more information. Tickets are $10 and can be purchased online or by calling the box office at 804-282-2620.

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  1. The artist formerly known as Theatre IV and Barksdale Theatre. 
  2. In the play the brothers are given the names “George Wythe Randolph” and “Patrick Henry Randolph.” Turns out, GWR was a real dude, but PHR was not. Although TJR did have brothers named Benjamin Franklin Randolph and James Madison Randolph. Talk about pressure, jeez! 
  3. I mean, that’s probably what they called him, right? 
  4. Jefferson also plaaaaays the violiiiiiiin at this point. 
  5. Yeah, I said it. You can slow-barf all you want, I don’t care. 
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Valerie Catrow

Valerie Catrow is editor of RVAFamily, mother to a mop-topped first grader, and always really excited to go to bed.

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