Patriotic Pizazz

By Whittington, Lewis | Stage Directions, December 2003 | Go to article overview

Patriotic Pizazz


Whittington, Lewis, Stage Directions


Despite a mishap with a stage frame, Philly's new National Constitution Center, replete with a star-shaped theater, opens to pomp and fanfare.

"We the people of the United States, in order to form a more perfect union..." So begins that revolutionary preamble of the U.S. Constitution, blueprint for democracy, framed by America's founding fathers in the stifling heat of 1787 Philadelphia at Independence Hall. The $185 million National Constitution Center (NCC), with its star-shaped centerpiece Kimmel Theater, opened with a literal bang this past July 4th.

In front of the complex, on the makeshift presentational stage, everything was in place for the ribbon-cutting ceremonies. Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor was there to accept the city's Liberty Medal Award. Pennsylvania Governor Ed Rendell, Philadelphia Mayor John Street, Ray Charles and other dignitaries along with thousands of visitors were on hand to witness the event.

Red, white and blue ribbons were supposed to be pulled and a huge replica of the Constitution was to drop on cue. Instead, a metal stage frame came crashing down and injured four people, including the mayor, Senator Arlen Specter and NCC President Joe Torsella. The large structure barely missed Justice O'Connor, who fortunately stepped back and was heard to say, "We could have been killed."

The accident was a close call, but it didn't ruin the opening of the icy gray asymmetric structure (designed by the architectural firm Pei Cobb Freed) with airy interior exhibit halls set by Ralph Appelbaum. The museum faces Independence Hall on the northern corridor of Independence National Historical Park and houses the dazzling, 360-degree, steep-tiered Kimmel amphitheater, which takes the Constitution out of its dusty historical context and presents it theatrically as an instrument of freedom active in our everyday life.

The museum displays artifacts and interactive arcade-like features, such as a bluescreen hookup so you can simulate being signed in as President.There is a huge window that offers a panoramic view of the historic Independence Mall, and then there's "Signer's Hall"-a sculptural reenactment of the signing of the Constitution with life-sized bronze statutes of the signatories.

The crowning installation, however, is the live 17-minute show about the formulation of our nation's democracy called Freedom Rising, performed 15 times a day in the Kimmel Theater. …

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