Reviewed by Gail M. Burns, January 2006
For all her faults, our nation is an amazing place, and the story of her founding is a gripping one. 1776 the Tony award-winning 1969 musical by Sherman Edwards and Peter Stone does as good a job as is possible in telescoping the events in Philadelphia in the early summer of that year into a plausible and entertaining piece of theatre. Occasionally the script devolves into WGWW (White Guys in Wigs Whining) but mostly the show zips along, introducing you to and involving you in the stories of twenty members of the Continental Congress, several of their staff, and two of their wives. Even though you know the outcome, the scene of the final vote on July 4 has you holding your breath in suspense.
NYSTI has mounted a handsome and professional production of 1776 which was well attended and well received at the first matinee performance I attended. Director Ron Holgate, who won the Tony for Best Featured Actor in a Musical for his portrayal of Richard Henry Lee of Virginia in the original Broadway production, obviously has deep feeling for the show and puts the large and talented cast through their paces with style. NYSTI has recruited all the best actors in the area, plus some from beyond, to create a stellar cast. Really, there is not a weak link in the bunch, and it is great fun to see these gentlemen in top form, taking on these wonderful, rich roles.
The central character in this version of the writing and signing of the Declaration of Independence is John Adams of Massachusetts (1735-1826), who would become the second President of the United States. Adams is portrayed as the irritant the produces the pearl of independence in the oyster that is the Continental Congress. Aiding and attempting to rein Adams in is Dr. Benjamin Franklin of Pennsylvania (1706-1790), the tricentennial of whose birth we celebrated last week. Adams and Franklin coerce a reluctant Thomas Jefferson of Virginia (1743-1826), who, in time, became the third U.S. President, into writing the declaration, but that was an easy task compared to swaying the remaining 50% of the congressional delegates to the side of independence in order to achieve the unanimous vote required.
How much does an actor playing an historical figure need to physically resemble that person? That is a tricky question and there are many variables, but generally so long as a performer manages to channel the energy and essence of the personage, he or she is safe.
In this production, much as enjoyed the performance of Gary Lynch, I never believed for a minute that he was John Adams. Lynch is tall, dark, and handsome, where Adams was short, stout and balding. Adams was a bulldog of a man and Lynch is a greyhound. If Lynch had been alone on the stage I might have been able to accept him as Adams over time, but when John Adams can look Thomas Jefferson in the eye (Adams was 5’7” to Jefferson’s was 6’2 ½”) there is something wrong. Looking at Lynch alongside David Baecker’s Jefferson and Joel Aroeste’s Franklin the picture was all wrong.
But as a performer Lynch cannot be faulted. He delivered Adams’ lines and songs with vigor and gusto. Aroeste was delightful as the bawdy Ben Franklin, and Baecker was appealing as the strong and silent Jefferson.
Michael Steese was a hoot as the rum-chugging and plain-spoken Stephen Hopkins of Rhode Island. John Romeo brought a calm center to the storm as John Hancock, president of the Continental Congress, as did David Bunce as his Secretary Charles Thomson. Bunce was especially fine in his delivery of George Washington’s depressing dispatches from the war front.
Ron Komora as the obstinate John Dickinson of Pennsylvania, who chose to leave the Congress rather than sign the Declaration, and David M. Girard as Edward Rutledge of South Carolina, who refuses to sign until Jefferson’s abolitionist passage is removed, are the “bad guys” of the piece. While I enjoyed Komora and Girard’s performances, I wished that Holgate had allowed the characters they portrayed to be more three-dimensional. These men were not, after all, villains. They were statesmen standing up for what they believed was right.
Girard really rocked the house with his powerful second act solo Molasses to Rum to Slaves. I only wished that lighting designer John McLain hadn’t chosen to have the lights wildly changing colors towards the end of the number. They distracted me from the lyrics and Girard’s gripping performance of them.
Another stand-out solo number belonged to NYSTI intern Donell James Foreman who, as the anonymous soldier who delivers Washington’s dismal missives, closes the first act with Mama Look Sharp a plaintive folk tune telling the tale of a dying soldier listening to his mother calling as she searches for him among the slain on the battlefield.
Casting Carole Edie Smith as Congressional Custodian Andrew McNair was a stroke of genius. I knew she was a woman, but I absolutely accepted her as small and wiry elderly man full of piss and vinegar.
The only actor who disappointed me was David Beditz as Richard Henry Lee of Virginia. This is role that won Holgate his Tony, and that character’s first act number The Lees of Old Virginia usually brings down the house, but Beditz, while professional and entertaining, wasn’t up to the challenge of stealing the show.
The story of the writing and signing of the Declaration of Independence is really a story of white men, but a musical must have a couple of pretty girls, and so Stone and Edwards have inserted the characters of Abigail Adams (Michelle Dawson) and Martha Jefferson (Mary Jane Hansen) to add a few soprano notes and some female pulchritude to the proceedings. Martha Jefferson appears “in the flesh,” but Abigail Adams appears only in John’s mind’s eye, as they sing lovely excerpts from some of their letters. The Adamses were both copious and skilled writers*, and their correspondence is one of the treasures of American letters.
I had a hard time liking both of these ladies. Hansen slid into her notes horribly while singing, and Dawson was made to look much too glamorous to be a convincing Abigail. John and Abigail Adams were intelligent, hard-working people who loved each other and this country very much, but they were neither of them particularly good looking. Why do we need to portray them that way on stage?
One of the big problems with this show is the disturbing vision of the Founding Fathers and Mothers as musical comedy stars. Thankfully Edwards and Stone have created few big song-and-dance numbers for the piece. There are no big opening numbers or rousing finales. We do get a bit of a Founding Fathers kick-line in But, Mr. Adams… and the conservative delegates do a restrained minuet in Cool, Cool, Considerate Men, but otherwise the singing and dancing in the piece springs from character and situation more than the need to entertain.
Richard Finkelstein has designed a strong and attractive set. The bulk of the slightly raked stage is taken up by the Congressional chamber and anteroom of Independence Hall, seen at an angle. A small area stage left represents both the interior and exterior of Jefferson’s rooms. Other scenes are played downstage or in one (with the proscenium curtain drawn) allowing the empty space to represent whatever the scene calls for.
Other than the odd color changes during Girard’s number, McLain’s lighting design was pleasant and unobtrusive. I particularly enjoyed watching the changing light through the enormous, many-paned sash windows of Independence Hall.
Robert Anton has done a nice job of making all those different sizes and shapes of gentlemen look handsome and historically accurate, from the dandified southern aristocrats to the basic Quaker black worn by Stephen Hopkins.
Musical Director and keyboardist Michael Musial once again leads a small and competent band consisting of Mark Brockley on keyboards, Irene Fitzgerald-Cherry and Josh Rodriguez on violin, and Mark Foster on the percussion instruments. It is a good trick to take four instruments and a percussion set and make them sound like a full orchestra.
So, is this story true? Yes, and no. Edwards was a history teacher with a burning desire to bring this story to the stage before his foray song writing. There is a great deal of true and fascinating history to be learned from 1776 and on the other hand Stone and Edwards took great poetic license because, as they said, “God writes lousy plays.” If you want to learn more about this pivotal period of American history, Holgate and I recommend you read 1776 by David McCullough, and I go a step further and recommend his biography of John Adams as well.
The New York State Theatre Institute production of 1776 runs through February 11 at the Schacht Fine Arts Center on the campus of Russell Sage College, 37 Front Street in Troy, New York. The show runs three hours with one intermission and is suitable children 10 and up. There is some bawdy language (our Founding Fathers were plain-spoken men who called a whore a whore) but nothing else on stage could be considered offensive. Call the box office at 518-274-3200 for tickets and information.
* For another look at John and Abigail Adams’ correpsondence, hurry over to Steamer No. 10 Theatre where Riverview Entertainment Productions is presenting “Marriage of True Minds” on February 4 at 1 p.m. and February 5 at 7 p.m.
copyright Gail M. Burns, 2006