’1776′ at Virginia Rep turns American History into patriotic joy
Read More: Alexander Sapp, Andy Boothby, Christie Jackson, Debra Clinton, Eddie Webster, Ford Flannagan, Jason Marks, Jody Ashworth, Jon Winn, Landon Nage, Matthew Costello, Michael Hawke, Neil Sonenklar, November Theatre, Peter Stone, Sandy Daucus, Sarah Walston, Scott Wichmann, Sue Griffin, Virginia Repertory Theatre
I am convinced of the educational and societal healing powers of the American Musical Theatre.
The genre of Historical Musical Comedy had been severely depressed until the coming of Hamilton; Lin Manuel Miranda’s hip hop musical is the hottest ticket on Broadway.
Virginia Rep takes advantage of Hamilton’s success by mounting the other well-known Historical Musical, the 55-year-old Tony Award winning 1776.
1776 was always a curious musical play.
When 1776 works, it works because it has patriotic fervor and a well-known, well written story.
1776 has no top 40 hit songs (in an era when that was the norm), but it has beautiful musical numbers. No chorus girls, but it does have middle aged white men in wigs debating serious political and societal issues. There’s no dance numbers, but it has a nifty soft shoe number.
The key to any successful production, musical or not, is in the telling of the story. A play can go from boring to breathtaking if the story is well told both in dialogue and song (and sometimes dance).
On the November stage, this tale is told well and entertainingly.
You know this story: the Second Continental Congress is holed up in a small meeting room during a sweltering Philadelphia Summer in the year 1776. They seem lost and useless until John Adams, who by his own admission is annoying and not well liked, forces the Congress to take up the question of American independence from Great Britain.
All the history book characters are there. Benjamin Franklin, John Hancock, Thomas and Martha Jefferson, Abagail Adams, and my particular favorite, Dr. Josiah Bartlett, whose fictional descendent and namesake becomes President of the United States in Aaron Sorkin’s television drama, The West Wing.
Virginia Repertory Theatre stages this play with restraint. Rich Mason’s sets are modest and simple. The floor plan is cramped and the sliding door on stage right made it seem as if the Congress was housed in a restored barn. Maybe they were.
The stage is a little crowded. The entire Congress is perched on risers and on a moveable platform which made me a little dizzy as it jutted upstage and down.
For the most part, the special effects were subdued allowing the evening to be about the play, not the design.
The play itself is not perfect. Scenes go on too long between musical numbers. There are 22 or more men in the Congressional scenes. While all of them have moments, many receive less attention and character opportunity than others.
While the lead roles are all filled by experienced actors who rise to the challenge, the lesser roles are not. The result is the Second Continental Congress is weighed down by some wooden acting in the secondary parts.
The absence of the usual Broadway spectacle is more than compensated by playwright Peter Stone by writing three dimensional historical characters for the leads. He looks for the passion in these men. He often finds it within the framework for these men’s marriages.
This play rests heavily on the shoulders of the actor playing John Adams.
Scott Wichmann is a very good Adams. Although heavier on the anger scale than I would have expected, I appreciated the diversity of emotions in the man. Wichmann can’t help but inject his own natural boyish charm and New England pride playing Adams. It makes Adams more endearing than he might ordinarily be.
Wichmann has a great support from his Producers co-star Jason Marks. Here they reunite to great effect, Marks finding the man behind the $100 bill. Humor and pathos informed his multi-faceted and very funny Benjamin Franklin.
Alexander Sapp playing John Rutledge from South Carolina
Wichmann and Marks play off each other beautifully. Franklin has all the “Poor Richard” wisdom to expound but is put in his place more than once by the impatient Adams. In turn, Franklin humanizes Adams, runs interference for his temper and obnoxiousness.
The Congress has tasked Adams, Franklin and Thomas Jefferson (Landon Nagel doing superior work with little material) with writing a doctrine that will explain the reasons for independence to the public. All men chafe at the assignment. They seek the inspiration to inspire a nation.
The inspiration comes from the love they have for their wives. And in Jefferson’s case, a conjugal visit helps a great deal.
Sarah Walston as Abigail Adams brings out the sensitive side of Adams as a loving family man. The scenes between Wichmann and Walston use a spoken letter device where the characters read aloud letters exchanged.
Director Debra Clinton stages these encounters very effectively, using actual distance to bridge the gap of the actual distance between the two. First from a balcony and lastly by bringing Abigail onstage with John. Although they are hundreds of miles away from each other the electricity between the two is used to empower Adams in his greatest time of need.
Walson and Christie Jackson as Martha Jefferson both have lovely numbers of their own. They both are beautiful women with gorgeous voices.
Ms. Jackson lights up the stage in her number “He Plays the Violin,” radiating warmth and proving an able comic foil for Wichmann and Marks.
The protagonists in this play are the nay-sayers who have political and personal reasons to keep things the way they are.
The main villain of the script is John Dickinson (Jody Ashworth) from Pennsylvania of all places. Seems the rich land barons are happy with their fiefdoms and are perfectly content remaining loyal to the King who gave them their estates and riches. Mr. Ashworth had a strong bass bellow that he uses to good dramatic effect but spends much of the play petulant and moody.
Alexander Sapp does very fine work as a very courtly Edward Rutledge, the gentleman from South Carolina who still adopts the finery of the Court of King George III. Sitting patiently with his forestage leg jutted just so, he lies in wait like a cat for the issue of slavery to rear its ugly head.
Mr. Rutledge leads a walk out of by the Southern States until offensive passages denouncing slavery are removed. A removal that Adams adamantly rejects until the more diplomatic Franklin counsels conciliation by tabling the slave issue in order to get the independence measure passed. Adams leaves the decision to Jefferson, who capitulates.
Mr. Sapp used was very effective in the 11 o’clock number, “Molasses to Rum.”
An 11 o’clock number appears usually in the middle of Act Two (which used to be closer to 11 o’clock than it is nowadays) when the audience is getting a little fatigued and needs a big, powerful number to wake them up.
Sapp’s 11 o’clock number extolled the hypocrisies of slave trading being as officious as slave owning and reminded the Congress that the New England states, particularly the Port of Boston, served as auction sites. Sapp pounced and slithered around the set, Ms. Clinton manipulating him through the space like a cobra, up, down, around and then straight on for the attack. B.J. Wilkinson’s lighting was used to greatest effect in this number, providing the right shade of power.
There are many actors to admire in this production. So many they can’t all be named, but there were a few that were particularly enjoyable:
Matthew Costello’s dignified, frumpy senior delegate from Rhode Island with a taste for the brandy, Stephen Hopkins; Eddie Webster’s nebbish come hero, Judge James Wilson of Pennsylvania.
The entire Delaware delegation: Neil Sonenklar’s frail, cancer stricken Caesar Rodney, Jon Winn’s stubborn giant of a small man George Read and Andy Boothby’s rascal of a Scotsman, Thomas McKean; The steady temperament, devastating gaze and accurate fly-swatting of Michael Hawke’s John Hancock, the President of the Continental Congress. Ford Flannagan’s mild and efficient Congressional Secretary, Charles Thompson; and The terribly patient men who cared for the Congressional space, Custodian Andrew McNair (Lucas Hall) and in multiple roles Cameron Leipold and Keaton Hillman (who played the messenger and has a very lovely tenor solo which, although beautifully sung, lacked some substance of character).
Sue Griffin’s costumes were uncharacteristically hit and miss. The ladies, Franklin and Rutledge were classy. The rest of the Congress looked rather plain and mostly unkempt. Too many men on stage for them all to look so drab.
Sandy Daucus led a live orchestra who sounded great. They blended so well you forgot they were there. That’s what a Musical Theatre orchestra should do.
1776 had not been on my top 20 Broadway Musicals before. I didn’t know it. An unconventional Broadway musical to be sure. Virginia Rep does great service by providing the opportunity to become familiar with the show in a professionally mounted setting.
Virginia Rep’s production of 1776 ought to be required viewing for all High School freshmen as it’s a supremely enjoyable way to learn about the founding of our country.
1776 at Virginia Repertory Theatre runs now through Oct. 30th at the November Theatre. You can snag tickets here.
Photo Credit Aaron Sutten
The Bottom Line: Light, feel good holiday/variety show play. Lots of charm and laughs. Just what Santa ordered. The women are in rare form at the Hanover Tavern where the Charitable Sisterhood of the Second Victory Trinity Church has “lost” their blue Crèche baby Jesus. He might be stolen. Yes. “Blue.” The reason might have [...]December 5, 2016
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