1776

If you’ve ever wondered what it would have felt like to be a fly on the wall of the Continental Congress of 1776 as our country’s Founding Fathers wrangled over the question of Independence from Great Britain and the writing of our Declaration Of Independence, then wonder no more. Instead, head on over to Glendale Centre Theatre, where a splendid cast of twenty-six under the skilled direction of Todd Nielsen revive the 1969 Broadway musical 1776 in an “all-a-round” terrific in-the-round staging.

 

Thanks to the inspired vision of composer/lyricist Sherman Edwards and book writer Peter Stone, this musical about a bunch of American Colonials holed up in a hot sweltering room debating independence from Great Britain brings American history to vivid, tuneful life, yet stands apart from most other Broadway musicals in that it could just as easily be considered a straight play with musical interludes. The original cast recording runs less than 42 minutes, including the overture, meaning that 1776 has more “book” than the average musical, and what a book that is! Stone makes history come alive, and even though we know the outcome, there is edge-of-your-seat suspense getting there. There’s also comedy, and romance, and a truly fascinating cast of characters.

From the production’s opening sequence, one which treats the audience to a tableau of our Nation’s founders looking like something out of a classic American painting in which we are now a part, we know we’re in for something special, even more so when a score of male voices join together to the strains of “For God’s Sake, John, Sit Down,” the first of Edwards’ dozen or so memorable songs.

The “John” being asked to sit down is, of course, John Adams (Peter Husmann), who despite a reputation for being “obnoxious and disliked,” is also a devoted husband, a clever politician, and a tireless fighter for American independence. 1776 surrounds him with household names, the foremost of which is Ben Franklin (John Butz), the inventor of the stove and countless clever sayings still quoted today. (“Calling me an Englishman is like calling an ox a bull: he’s grateful for the honor, but he’d rather have restored what’s rightfully his.” “Revolutions come into this world like bastard children. Half improvised and half compromised.”) Others in 1776’s huge cast of characters include Thomas Jefferson (Jeff Drushal), who wrote the Declaration only to find himself pressured to go against his deepest convictions in order to get it passed unanimously; John Dickenson (Jason W. Webb), the proud delegate from Pennsylvania and Adams’ chief adversary; the very full-of-himself Richard Henry Lee (Bryan Vickery), whose “The Lees Of Old Virginia” comes with its own built-in encore; proud Southern gentleman Edward Rutledge (Joey Zangardi), who rebukes his Northern colleagues for the “aroma of hypocrisy floating down from the North” in “Molasses To Rum”; Abigail Adams (Victoria Strong), who sings long distance duets with her longed-for husband John; Martha Jefferson (Michaelia Leigh), who reveals to Adams and Franklin a little-known tidbit about her laconic spouse (“He Plays The Violin”), and an unnamed Courier (Andrew Wade) who encapsulates the horrors of war in the three heartbreaking minutes that end Act One.

As 1776 unfolds, we hear George Washington’s increasingly depressing reports of British troupes en route and Colonial soldiers on the verge of mutiny. We see the resistance of the Southern delegates to turn against the British crown. We wonder if Caesar Rodney will succumb to cancer before he can cast his vote for Independence. We observe a demoralized Thomas Jefferson delete clause after clause from his beloved Declaration, waiting to see if he will delete the one which means most to him, the one which abolishes slavery. And we wonder if the delegate from New York will ever do something other than abstain, however “courteously.”

Husmann is everything John Adams should be—proud, determined, uncompromising, at times insufferable, and one heck of a decent man. Butz is so uncannily Franklinian that you would swear he stepped off a hundred-dollar bill and onto the GCT stage. Drushal captures all of loner Jefferson’s intensity, intelligence, and idealism. Vickery couldn’t be a more irresistible Lee, Strong a more radiant Abigail, or Leigh a more exquisite Martha. All are superb singers to boot.

“Cool, Cool Considerate Men” provides a great vocal showcase for a standout Webb, as does the heartbreakingly beautiful “Momma Look Sharp” for gorgeous-voiced newcomer Wade. Finally, there is Zangardi’s positively thrilling rendition of “Molasses To Rum,” a wow of a performance which earns the evening’s loudest cheers.

One of the best things about Stone’s book is that it allows even the smallest of roles to reveal at least some characteristic that makes the part distinctive, in addition to offering the actor playing it his own stellar moments on stage—all the easier to savor thanks to GCT’s intimate staging. It is only space and time constraints that prevent me from giving each of the following couldn’t-be-better actors the detailed praise he deserves: Nathan Armstrong (Robert Livingston), Aldo Benalcazar (Leather Apron), George Champion (John Hancock), Mario De Gregorio (Col. Thomas McKean), Clay Dzygun (James Wilson), Christopher Gomez (Dr. Lyman Hall), Kyle Kelley (George Read), Jason J. Lewis (Josiah Bartlett), Hisato Masuyama-Ball (Samuel Chase), Patrick McMahon (Roger Sherman), Danny Michaels (Charles Thompson), Peter Miller (Andrew McNair), Jim Molinaro (Joseph Hewes), Michael Shaughnessy (Rev. Jonathan Witherspoon), Scott Strauss (Caesar Rodney), Adam Trent (Lewis Morris), and Don Woodruff (Stephen Hopkins). Though none of these performers get showcase solos, when they blend their voices in harmony, the result is quite glorious.

Glendale Centre Theatre couldn’t have made a more inspired choice to direct and choreograph 1776 than Nielsen, who played John Hancock in Musical Theatre West’s big-stage revival almost exactly a year ago. Though certain characters can’t help but have their backs turned to the audience in their “assigned seating,” Nielsen insures that when they’re up and moving, no one gets shortchanged. Clearly the director has had his actors do their character work, and it shows in each one’s nuanced performance. 1776 offers few chances for a choreographer to strut his stuff, but the delightful “Cool, Cool Considerate Men” minuet does deserve mention.

Musical director Steven Applegate merits kudos for the cast’s fine harmonies. Nathan J. Milisavlejevich’s sound design provides an excellent mix of voices and prerecorded instrumental tracks, though with so many amped speaking voices, it’s hard at times to tell just who’s doing the talking. Angela Wood and Glendale Costumes once again clothe the entire cast to 18th Century perfection. Uncredited set and lighting designs complete an all-around first-rate design package. Paul Reid is stage manager.

Anyone who finds American History the slightest bit dull will likely rethink his or her opinion once under 1776’s spell. It’s the perfect early summer offering, offering enough music and drama and history to keep audiences entertained and educated from powerful start to emotion-packed finish.

Glendale Centre Theatre, 324 N. Orange St., Glendale.
www.glendalecentretheatre.com

–Steven Stanley
June 29, 2011

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