Story: In the spring and summer of 1776, the members of the Second Continental Congress, presided over by John Hancock of Massachusetts, debate endlessly various issues set before them. One subject they haven’t discussed, though, is independence from Great Britain, a point of increasing agitation to delegate John Adams of Massachusetts.
As Adams acknowledges that he is “obnoxious and disliked,” he convinces fellow delegate Richard Henry Lee of Virginia to propose the subject of independence for debate. After Lee obtains the approval of Virginia’s House of Burgesses, the torturous road to independence is shepherded in baby steps by Adams, Benjamin Franklin of Pennsylvania and Thomas Jefferson of Virginia.
Every tiny point is discussed ad infinitum, even as the colonies’ military leader, George Washington, sends pessimistic missives about the state of their militia. When cautious John Dickinson of Pennsylvania proposes that a vote for independence be unanimous among the 13 colonies, Adams and his allies marshal their persuasive abilities to garner such a vote, against seemingly impossible odds. As they battle the heat of summer, pesky flies and contentious disagreements in a stuffy meeting room in Philadelphia, the Founding Fathers fight to forge a revolutionary alliance.
Highlights: A seemingly unlikely topic for a musical, 1776 premiered on Broadway in 1969 and ran for 1,217 performances before closing in 1972. It won three Tony Awards, including Best Musical.
As the political climate throughout the country grew increasingly acrimonious in the presidential election year of 2012, Insight Theatre’s artistic director Maggie Ryan was inspired to mount a production of 1776 “that would remind our audiences of the struggles, values and triumph our United States was based upon.”
Ryan’s words are important, and one can hear considerable verbal fireworks in Insight Theatre’s current production, which reminds us how the men who formed the Continental Congress were willing to face treason and certain death if their move for independence was snuffed out by “the tyrant King George.”
Other Info: The opening-night performance of 1776 was a victory of idealism over reality and patriotism over practicality. Technical difficulties at the beginning of the presentation gave way to a discordantly shabby performance by conductor Charlie Mueller and his orchestra in the opening act, although there was improvement in Act II, as musicians seemed to search for the right notes, often unsuccessfully.
Additionally, the pacing in the first act was tediously slow, including overly long pauses between the act’s five scenes. Hopefully a smoother and sprightlier rendition by director Ryan and her cast will occur as the production continues.
Bill Schmeil’s scenic design offers a handsome interpretation of the Congress’ chamber, with a voting ledger of the 13 colonies hanging at the back of the stage, flanked by a pair of large, imposing windows, although the seating area for the delegates more resembles a café filled with tiny, covered tables and chairs.
Maureen Berry’s lighting beautifully illustrates various scenes, including the poignant interludes between Adams and his beloved wife Abigail, who stand at opposite ends of the stage to accentuate the vast physical distance between them. Costumes designed by Laura Hanson are sumptuous and first-rate, Jim Ryan’s properties, particularly the men’s walking canes, illustrate the aristocratic class of those assembled and sound designer Mark Griggs adds the sobering chimes of the Liberty Bell as each delegate signs his name to the Declaration of Independence.
Martin Fox delivers a stirring performance as Adams, the focal character in Peter Stone’s book. Fox brings a fiery and passionate portrayal to the Massachusetts patriot, demonstrating both Adams’ relentless push for independence and his affecting love for his wife.
Tom Murray is glib and mischievous but also persuasive as the wry elder statesman Franklin, and Joneal Joplin is a delight as the rum-swilling Rhode Island delegate Stephen Hopkins. The work’s ‘villains,’ as it were, are strongly etched by Christopher Hickey as Pennsylvania’s careful delegate, John Dickinson, and Matt Pentecost as South Carolina’s charismatic charmer, Edward Rutledge.
Two of the show’s surprisingly few musical numbers are carried by Hickey and Pentecost. The former leads the Act I penultimate bit, Cool, Cool, Considerable Men, as Dickinson and his conservative cohorts dance a merry minuet provided by Zoe Vonder Haar’s choreography as they chortle about their apparent victory in stifling the vote for independence.
Pentecost brings a scathing delivery to Rutledge’s brooding piece, Molasses to Rum, which emphasizes how the North benefits economically from slavery throughout the South, as he demands the removal of an anti-slavery plank in Jefferson’s immortal document.
Peter Meredith is OK as Jefferson, although he’s more apparent in demonstrating the Virginian’s reputation as a quiet man than his ability to rally his colleagues on their historic quest. Taylor Pietz provides a fine voice and a coy touch as Jefferson’s lovely wife, Martha, on the amusing number, He Plays the Violin, while Janine Burmeister showcases the production’s best vocal ability as the intelligent, loving and clever Abigail Adams on such numbers as the plaintive duet with Fox, Yours, Yours, Yours.
Others in the capable cast include GP Hunsaker as the sagacious Hancock, Michael Brightman as Dickinson’s meek comrade, James Wilson, and Michael Amoroso as the extravagant Lee, as well as Tyler Linke, Troy Turnipseed, Matt Huber, Joey Otradovec, Ken Haller, Charles Heuvelman, Jim Leibrecht, Greg Cuellar, Adam Stefo, Paul Balfe, Zack Stefaniak, Kent Coffel, Tom Wethington, Nathan Hinds and Charlie Ingram.
The music and lyrics by Sherman Edwards are relatively modest by musical standards, but Stone’s book for 1776 effectively presents the foibles as well as the lofty goals of this band of brothers, American Revolution-style.
Company: Insight Theatre Company
Venue: Heagney Theatre, Nerinx Hall, 530 East Lockwood Avenue
Dates: June 27, 28, 29, 30, July 2, 3, 5, 6, 7
Tickets: $15-$30; contact 556-1293 or brownpapertickets.com
Rating: A 3.5 on a scale of 1-to-5.
Photos courtesy of John Lamb