In 1969, Peter Stone and Sherman Edwards created 1776, a compelling historical musical. (Have those three descriptive words ever before been used together?) Their play depicts the debates, passions and courage it took to craft the Declaration of Independence and start along the path to creating this new country, the United States of America.
1776 won the 1969 Best Musical Tony Award. It is an almost perfect amalgam of strong music, humorous one-liners and passionate arguments. These are delivered by a large cast of distinctly defined quirky characters who evoke patriotic pride and awe while detailing the foibles and annoying humanity of the men celebrated.
Get Into Revolutionary History with Colonial Players
On Sunday, April 6, the Players invite you to join a walking tour of Annapolis with the cast, and colonially attired guide from Annapolis Tours by Watermark. The 90-minute tour begins at 1pm: $13w/age discounts: 410-268-7601 x100; www.annapolistours.com.
Colonial Players Counts Its Prizes
Colonial Players claimed three major awards in this year’s Washington Area Theatre Community Honors (WATCH) judging. Going to St. Ives was a judges’ favorite, earning the Oustanding Play Award plus Outstanding Director award for its director, Edd Miller, and Oustanding Lead Actress Award for Lolita-Marie.
Colonial Players’ production of 1776 is a gutsy and courageous choice given the small stage and its in-the-round staging requirement. Director Beth Terranova deserves credit for using the small space inventively, for some very strong casting decisions and for creating a seamless production.
While this 1776 is thoroughly engaging, it is also unexpectedly cerebral, leveling out the high points. The actors convey their political points of view with passion but their personalities and interpersonal relationships are overshadowed. This is ironic as 1776 was revolutionary because it depicted these historical demi-gods as real men.
Jeff Sprague carries John Adams’ political passion and lonely introspection extremely well. If anything he just isn’t disagreeable enough. Ray Flynt’s Benjamin Franklin is perfect, pompous yet sweet, pontificating yet polite. Timothy Sayles’ John Dickinson is a revelation, creating a man whose opinions you despise but whose strength of character you must admire.
Three characters with show-stopping songs are meant to carry the humor, pathos and rage of the era. In this production Ron Giddings’ Edward Rutledge is not enough a bully to make “Molasses to Rum to Slaves” the searing song it is. Nathan Bowen does not carry the effervescent, simple charm the character of Richard Henry Lee needs. Joshua H. Riffle’s Courier is effective but not as heartbreaking as the song “Mama Look Sharp” asks. Each of these actors has a great voice, well suited to the challenges of their song, but choices in interpretation, costume and staging undermine their effectiveness.
Eric Hufford’s Thomas Jefferson also has a strong voice for his singing scenes, but he needs a stronger stage presence for this role. Sandra Rardon’s Abigail Adams and Kaelynn Miller’s Martha Jefferson are strongly sung and acted, reminding us of the world outside Philadelphia.
Rick Estberg as the Secretary, Charles Thompson, and Joe Thompson as Custodian McNair are excellent commentators on the activities of the Congress.
The set is as minimal as possible to allow the two dozen actors to move about. Custom-made costumes are very beautiful (perhaps too much so for a hot Philadelphia summer?) and the wigs effective. Taped music is so good it raises compliments and no complaints.
Colonial Players has gone above and beyond for historical accuracy with Amish-made stools, horsehair flyswatters and commissioned period coffee bowls.
Personal preferences notwithstanding, this production of 1776 is quality theater, timely and professional in presentation. The theater was packed on opening night both on the stage and in the seats. Given its timeliness and timelessness, it should enjoy many more sold out houses.
Lyricist Sherman Edwards once said that the men who became reluctant leaders and are now known as our founding fathers “were the cream of their colonies. … They disagreed and fought with each other. But they understood commitment, and though they fought, they fought affirmatively.”
Would that this 1776 spirit could resonate from the theatrical halls to the halls of the 2013 Congress.