Reviewed by Gail M. Burns, July, 2002

The Spirit of ’76 is alive and well at the Mac-Haydn this week in this lively, well-staged production of the Tony award-winning musical play 1776 brimming with talent and excitement. Towards the end of the second act I actually found myself biting my nails and thinking, “Oh no! How will they sway the southern votes? Will they have to give up that passage about abolishing slavery? How will this end?” Of course, we all know how the Second Continental Congress voted and how the story ends, but it is a gripping tale nonetheless, and masterfully told by Peter Stone and Sherman Edwards and directed by Christopher Catt. You actually believe that Benjamin Franklin could have sung and danced around Independence Hall, if he had wanted to.

One of the joys of covering the Mac-Haydn seasons is seeing the company of actors take on different roles and challenges week after week. “Gee, I didn’t know s/he could do THAT,” I find myself saying, or, “Is that really the same guy/girl who played X two weeks ago?” Very few theatres these days employ anything resembling a resident company and it is a pity because this kind of intensive, performance-based experience is invaluable to young performers, and provides lively challenges for veterans. The male contingent at the Mac-Haydn often don’t do much more than partner the pretty girls in the dance numbers, but for this show no fewer than 23 of them get to sink their teeth into meaty roles, while all but two of the Mac-Haydn’s bevy of talented beauties get to strut their stuff.

If I were to list all the fine performers and the roles they played, this review would go on far too long, so I will confine my comments to the truly outstanding, but rest assured that no one on the stage will disappoint.

John Saunders, who has been a lively second-banana so far this season, is a revelation as John Adams of Massachusetts. He conveys the single-minded drive and commitment this much maligned founding father possessed, and his scenes with Marcia Kunkel as Adams’ wife, Abigail, are tender and moving. He also interacts well with Adam MacDonald’s stoic and laconic Thomas Jefferson, and John Baker’s Benjamin Franklin. While Baker plays Franklin with much irrepressible verve, he is the weakest link in the triumvirate of leading men here. He is saddled with an impossibly ugly bald pate/wig, and he keeps forgetting that Franklin had gout.

Michael Shiles is impressive as John Dickinson of Pennsylvania, the one member of the congress who refuses to sign the Declaration of Independence (Dickinson chose instead to resign and join Washington’s forces to fight the British, despite his belief that such a conflict was hopeless). His confrontations with Saunders’ Adams are full of the fireworks born of passionately held beliefs.

William DiPaola has proven his ability to play oily, sinister types already this season, but as Edward Rutledge of South Carolina, his rendition of “Molasses to Rum,” a song condemning the holy-than-thou stance of New Englanders who were heavily involved in the slave business through the infamous “triangle trade,” is downright unnerving.

Brian Laycock, as the harried courier assigned to bring Washington’s endless, dreary dispatches from the battlefield to Philadelphia, concludes Act I with a haunting rendition of “Mamma, Look Sharp. And Jamie Grayson brings a new meaning to the term “high energy” in his number as Richard Henry Lee of Virginia.

The two women in the show, Kunkel as Abigail Adams and Tiffany Thornton as Martha Jefferson, look and sound lovely. While the fabricated Martha Jefferson incident is nothing more than an excuse to get a pretty young woman on the stage, hearing the actual quotations from John and Abigail Adams’ letters brings an important human dimension to the testosterone laden proceedings in the congress. Married for twelve years by 1776, the Adamses were already the parents of many children and their thousands of letters attest to their strong marriage and their commitment to the American cause.

I don’t know about you, but seeing this show has inspired me to finally get around to reading David McCullough’s acclaimed biography of John Adams, and visiting the Founding Documents (copies of the Declaration of Independence, the Articles of Confederation, the Constitution, the Bill of Rights, and George Washington’s copy of the Federalist), which are on permanent display at the Chapin Library of Rare Books (413-597-2462) at Williams College in Williamstown. The Library is open free of charge from 10 a.m. to noon and 1-5 pm, Monday through Friday.

1776 runs through July 14 at the Mac-Haydn Theatre on Rt. 203 in Chatham, NY. The show runs three hours and ten minutes, including one intermission. There is some 18th century cussing and the sexual innuendos are largely reserved for the marriage bed. I would say that this show is suitable for ages 8 and up. Call the box office at 518-392-9292 for tickets and information.

copyright Gail M. Burns, 2002

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