Revolutionary past comes to life again

August 01, 1999|By Terry Conway | Terry Conway,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

Welcome to the Revolution -- 21st-century style.

Time travelers storm Ben Franklin's house, then dash down a cobblestone alley swept up in the frenzy of a pack of 1770's freedom fighters primed to battle British redcoats.

Vivid 50-foot projected images and high-tech tricks brighten the nighttime sky. Muskets crack, cannons boom and the words of Franklin, John Q. Adams and Thomas Jefferson echo through the nation's most historic square mile in Philadelphia's Independence National Historic Park.

"Lights of Liberty" is a $12 million revolution in sound and light -- the American Revolution, as it happened, where it happened 220-odd years ago.

The production, unveiled last month, is the combined effort of show producer Ron Mikizer, a Disney alumnus; three-time Tony Award winner John Debney, who created soundtracks for the movies "Liar, Liar" and "Paulie"; and screen writer Ron Maxwell, writer-director of the films "Anthony and Cleopatra" and "Gettysburg." Debney's hard-driving score was recorded by members of the world-renowned Philadelphia Orchestra, while the show's characters are portrayed by the voices of Walter Cronkite, Ossie Davis, Charlton Heston, Claire Bloom and a supporting cast of hundreds. "Our goal was not to just present history, but to create an emotional experience so that you are actually participating in the story," says producer Mikizer.

Visitors begin their hourlong adventure at the PECO Energy Liberty Center at Sixth and Chestnut streets, where they purchase tickets and receive surround-sound headsets they'll wear throughout the show. Dressed in red vests and tricorner black hats, tour guides Courtney and Tim lead our group of 50 along Market Street past the Liberty Bell down to Franklin Court, the site of Ben Franklin's second home.

The drama opens in 1765 when unruly mobs are bickering about the recently passed Stamp Act. The patriots' cries for liberty and the cascading musical scores are transmitted through synchronized digital headsets. (The show is also available in Spanish, German, French, Italian, Chinese and Japanese as well as a "Children's Channel.") The protests, gunfire and glorious music put visitors smack in the middle of the action.

Meanwhile, choreographed, hand-painted, computer-enhanced images are flashed on the front of the surrounding historic buildings, where they appear as immense, five-story animated scenes.

The action jumps to 1774 at Carpenter's Hall, where we listen in on the Continental Congress' proceedings as Patrick Henry thunders: "I am an American."

Next we stroll along a lamp-lighted Fourth Street, crossing over to the grounds of the Second Bank of the United States -- an imposing, eight-columned Greek Revival-style edifice. Sliding behind the towering columns are projected images of Washington on horseback and a four-masted cargo ship sailing the Delaware as throngs of Colonists cheer during a political rally featuring Adams, Franklin and Pennsylvania conservative John Dickinson.

Act Four unfolds in a small park adjacent to the bank, where the patriots clash with British redcoats on a series of wide screens. Campfires smolder, cannon and musket smoke wafts through the nighttime air. With the music score roaring inside your head, the question is posed: "We are an army of farmers and shopkeepers and we will stand up to the world's mightiest force, but how?"

The finale unfurls at Independence Hall, as Jefferson and Franklin declare: "We must all hang together; or surely we will hang separately. The Declaration is settled. July 4, 1776." Brilliantly colored images of the founding fathers pop up on the building's south side, trailed by a cluster of shooting stars that morph into the first Colonial flag. It all winds up with the words of the Declaration of Independence scrolling up the face of the hallowed site accompanied by a heart-thumping rendition of "God Bless America." subhed: A complex system

Originally scheduled to debut last November, the complex technical requirements postponed the show's opening several times.

Computers are linked by underground wires to carts that synchronize sound with images. Every night, 20 technicians move 18 projection carts -- with windows in the front for projection and bubbles in the top for lights -- into place at five locations along the show route.

Producer Mikizer draws this analogy: Imagine a circus train, but instead of animals, each cart holds cutting-edge projectors, lights and robotic light fixtures. "There's one brain computer that coordinates the headsets, the mass of images and keeps it all going," explains Mikizer. "We used original artwork for each scene; each picture is painted in the style of that era."

These striking video images are loaded onto 185-millimeter film and then projected onto their towering, 50-foot architectural screens. IMAX movies, by comparison, are recorded on 70-millimeter film and projected onto 30-foot screens.

"The Old City area," says Mikizer, "might be the only place in the country you could stage a historical show like this."

WHEN YOU GO

Getting there: Take Interstate 95 north into Philadelphia; take Exit 17, Historic Area. Go straight to Second Street. Follow Second Street to Market Street and turn right. Follow Market Street to Sixth Street. Turn left on Sixth Street and follow to Chestnut Street.

When: Tours daily, from dusk on through early October; one tour every 15 minutes.

Admission: $18 for adults, $12 for children 6-12.

Information: 877-GO-2-1776; www.lightsofliberty.org.

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