Someday Productions and Pillow Talking are pleased to present the following review of 1776 at the Connecticut Repertory Theatre (CRT)
Through June 10th
In 1972 I was a sophomore in high school and already hooked on theatre. But even back then, Broadway was often prohibitively expensive, especially for a kid from Yonkers, so seeing the film version of 1776 was as good as going to Broadway. The film was top heavy with theatrical performers including William Daniels, Howard Da Silva, Ken Howard, John Cullum, Roy Poole, Blythe Danner, and many others. Even though film musicals were rather passé in the seventies, 1776 was able to snag an Oscar and Golden Globe Award. I put it on my bucket list (yes, I had a bucket list even back then) to see it on stage. But as John Lennon once said, “Life is what happens to you while you’re making other plans.” So I ended up missing the 1997 Broadway revival and it remained on my list – until Connecticut Repertory Theatre (CRT) performed it for its 2017 Summer Nutmeg Series.
I forgot how good a musical it was – and it is one that should be seen on stage to really enjoy the full theatrical experience (not that the celluloid version was bad; but there’s nothing like a live theatrical musical when done well).
CRT’s 1776 is outstanding. Terrence Mann’s direction is masterful. Mr. Mann, no stranger to Broadway or staged musicals (he was the original Rum Tum Tugger in Cats) utilized his tremendous theatrical experience to create a truly Broadway-caliber production. This is especially a herculean feat if one considers the relatively short amount of rehearsal time CRT has to get its plays up and running; and that the cast is a mixed one with students working alongside Equity professionals. In discussing his approach to 1776 in a Pillow Talking interview, Mr. Mann explained how 1776 keeps you on the edge of your seat where you are constantly asking yourself, “Is the Continental Congress going to vote for independence or not?” I must admit that the edge-of-the-seat tension that Terrence Mann described in the interview (and his Director’s Note) was indeed real and palpable one that I felt as an observer. Obviously, I do not have a British accent or swear allegiance to a king, so I knew the historical outcome of the vote, but the real excitement was in the journey. Indeed, it’s the kind of satisfaction one gets out of watching old Columbo TV shows where you know the murderer and how he or she did it, but the real fun is watching Peter Falk’s cat-and-mouse antics as the ultimate denouement plays out.
Mr. Mann has created a real, three-dimensional world where our conceptions of historical figures and events may not be forever shattered, but, at the very least, altered — hopefully for the better. We realize that our forefathers sans wigs and costumes were essentially the same as we are; having the same fears, desires, doubts, insecurities and other human frailties that we all at some point in our lives experience. John Adams, the second President of the United States, was a nudge and a pest; Thomas Jefferson, a sex-starved writer of the Declaration; Ben Franklin, witty, self-effacing, with a predilection for narcoleptic naps during congressional sessions; and countless others too numerous to dissect. The point being these historical personages were real human beings.
The casting was pitch perfect. James LaVerdiere was phenomenal as John Adams. Whether he intended to or not, he definitely channeled William Daniels in the film version (he sounded exactly like him). More importantly, however, he brought a passion to the role that was visceral. Simon Longnight was hysterically effervescent as the wacky Virginian Rep, Richard Henry Lee. Known as “Lighthorse Harry” in real life, the historical Lee was twice married and had a total of thirteen children. Adam Harrington was brilliant as John Dickinson, the stubborn rep from Pennsylvania who fought tooth-and-nail against what he believed were the treasonous pontifications of both Ben Franklin and John Adams. Darren Lee Brown gives a subtle, comical performance as the wishy-washy James Wilson from Pennsylvania. (It’s too bad that the real-life indecisiveness and bad decision-making of the real James Wilson led him to financial ruin in later life, debtors prison, and stroke by fifty-five years old.) Dale AJ Rose channeled the great actor John Houseman as Caesar Rodney, the dying Rep from Delaware. Thank goodness he held on to vote for independence!Womenfolk were very capably represented by the strong performances of Gaelen Gilliland as Abigail Adams and Paige Smith as Martha Jefferson.
While the size of the cast prevents me from analyzing all of the performances on an individual basis, since many of the parts were played by students, they all deserve shout-outs. So here’s to the rest of this talented cast: Charlie Patterson (John Hancock), Cullen Ries (Dr. Josiah Bartlett, NH), Frank Mack (Stephen Hopkins, RI), Alessandro Gian Viviano (Roger Sherman, CT), Jayke Workman (Rev. Jonathan Witherspoon, NJ), Jamie Colburn (Col. Thomas McKean, DE), Tuck Sweeney (George Read, DE), Max Helfand (Samuel Chase, MD), Matt Kemp (Joseph Hewes, NC), Noah Kiesermann (Edward Rutledge, SC) and Nate Healey (Dr. Lyman Hall, GA). I abstain from mentioning on principle (as a fellow New Yorker) Derrick Holmes’ and Kent Coleman’s comical performances as, respectively, Lewis Morris and Robert Livingston (NY).
The common people were competently represented by Elliot Styles (Congressional Secretary), Aidan Marchetti (Congressional Custodian), Dharon Jones (A Leather Apron) and Jamal Fields-Green (A Courier).
Lest we forget amid the rising tension of the drama of the vote, the play also is an engaging musical in its own right. Sherman Edwards wrote the music and lyrics. Peter Stone wrote the book. I especially enjoyed the musical numbers “But, Mr. Adams” and “He Plays the Violin.” “The Lees of Old Virginia” was side-splittingly funny. I would be remiss not to point out the rather poignant number by the common folk, Courier, Custodian and Leather Apron, “Mamma Look Sharp.”
Finally, additional props to Scenic Designer Tim Brow, Music Director John Pike, and Costume Designer Fan Zhang.
If you’re expecting a detailed, completely accurate description of the events leading up to the signing of The Declaration of Independence with character portraits rivaling the Pulitzer Prize-winning historian, David McCullough, thankfully you are not going to get it. Instead, you will get a fairly accurate, slightly exaggerated perhaps (but by no means revisionist), engaging retelling of the birth of our nation set to music. And that should satisfy the palettes of both musical theatre fans and history buffs!
Feel free to fill in the blanks:
“When am I ever going to use _______?” or “When am I ever going to need to know _______?”
Probably more rhetorical, but these are oft-heard questions asked by students to parents and teachers alike. Some hate math. Others have a serious dislike for science. Further, there are those who avoid gym class or even art or music (egad!). When I was in school, my weak spot was history; it was the pimple on my face I wished would just go away. My brain would go into complete shut-down mode when it was time for history class, even in college. It wasn’t that I didn’t care about our founding fathers or the impact of war and other events that have shaped our world. I understood even then that learning about history helps to guide our future so that we may avoid the mistakes of the past; and I knew it was a way to understand who we are as a people and who others are as well.
But none of that got me through the drudgery of memorizing the names of all those dead people, the countless meaningless dates, and other seemingly unimportant minutiae. Simply, I felt I didn’t connect with the course material and I found it boring. Yes, boring, unexciting, monotonous, mind-numbing. How dare I? I mean, these people did some mighty important things before I was even a thought in my parents’ minds – or before they were a thought in theirs. What’s more, it’s even sadder to think that the events of our world today, which are of tremendous importance to us, will also someday be boring to later generations – but alas, it will just be an example history repeating itself.
That all being said, how ever did playwright Peter Stone (book) and lyricist Sherman Edwards (music and lyrics) take a significant piece of American history and turn it into an uproarious, rollicking, damn good time? I only wish that back in the day, I had some history teachers with their incredible talent and zest for storytelling – because from the word go – or rather, the words, “Sit Down, John” (the title of the opening musical number), I’d not only have sat down but also have been completely enraptured by what was unfolding in front of me.
1776 is a rather colorful interpretation of the events surrounding America’s independence from King George, and it illustrates some known and some little or unknown facts about the men who made it happen (and two of the women who aided them). The action spans a mere 27 days – from May 8, 1776 to, of course, July 4, 1776, culminating in the famous signing of The Declaration of Independence. With an uber-talented cast and brilliant direction by the inimitable, Tony nominated, Broadway veteran Terrence Mann, Connecticut Repertory Theatre put a two-hour-and-forty-five-minute smile across my face that didn’t even fade during the hour-and-a-half ride home.
Jamie LaVerdiere, also a Broadway vet, plays protagonist John Adams of Massachusetts with such verve and despite being “obnoxious and disliked” he’s the beloved champion of the independence cause. He’s a force to be reckoned with who just needs to work a bit on his interpersonal skills. Ben Franklin of Pennsylvania, played to the hilt by Richard R. Henry, actor, director and UCONN alum, is the playful, quippy, sagacious, sometimes lecherous, serious-when-he-needs to be complement and supporter to/defender of Adams. Henry has terrific comic timing and steals quite a few scenes, even when he’s just nodding off. While she never interacts with anyone but her husband, appearing in his imagination as they exchange letters across the miles, John’s wife Abigail Adams played by another Broadway vet Gaelen Gilliland, who is “straight off of [Broadway’s] Kinky Boots,” is dynamic and vibrant, with an incredibly rich voice. She’s the one who keeps her man grounded (don’t we all? J) and provides dimension to his character outside of the Continental Congress.
John Dickinson of Pennsylvania played by Adam Harrington is the true antagonist to Adam’s fervent desire for independence – talk about obnoxious and disliked! Harrington is articulate, hawkish, but he’s certainly the man you love to hate! Dale A. Rose is excellent as the cancer-ridden but thoughtful and impassioned Caesar Rodney of Delaware. Violinist Thomas Jefferson of Virginia played by Will Bryant is excellent as the soft-spoken, eloquent author of the Declaration. Darren Lee Brown as Judge James Wilson of Pennsylvania is a sycophant whose opinions are squashed by the overbearing Dickinson. Noah Kieserman’s Edward Rutledge of South Carolina is young and cocksure, and does an excellent job keeping North Carolina’s Joseph Hewes, played by Matt Kemp, under his thumb. Richard Henry Lee of Virginia played pricelessly by Simon Longnight is part aristocrat part endearing egotist, but always gregarious and uproariously flamboyant. Charlie Patterson as John Hancock, the merchant from Massachusetts, is fantastic as the President of the Continental Congress and the supreme mediator who supports independence. Elliot Styles is great as Charles Thompson, Congressional Secretary. Jamal Fields-Green as A Courier is in and out delivering George Washington’s dispatches to Congress and also delivers a powerfully moving “Momma, Look Sharp.” Aidan Marchetti is wonderful as Andrew McNair the snarky Congressional Custodian. Paige Smith as Martha Jefferson is Thomas’s playful wife and a delightful songbird who “fits” so nicely with Bryant.
The rest of Congress are integral parts of the dynamic whole. Kudos to the entire company who each add their own special flair: to Jamie Colburn as Col. Thomas McKean of Delaware; to Kent Coleman as Robert Livingston of New York; to Nate Healey as Dr. Lyman Hall of Georgia (also A Painter); to Max Helfland as Samuel Chase of Maryland; to Derrick Holmes as the “courteously abstaining” Lewis Morris of New York; to Dharon Jones as A Leather Apron, McNair’s assistant/apprentice; to Frank Mack as Stephen Hopkins of Rhode Island; to Cullen Ries as Dr. Josiah Bartlett of New Hampshire; to Tuck Sweeney as George Read of Delaware; to Alessandro Gian Viviano as Roger Sherman of Connecticut; and finally to Jayke Workman as Rev. Jonathan Witherspoon of New Jersey.
Special nods to Scenic Designer Tim Brown for creating a superb Congressional Congress; John Pike for excellent musical direction; Michael Chybowski for spot-on lighting design; Fan Zhang for phenomenal costume design; Tom Kosis as Stage Manager; Michael Vincent Skinner for sound design; Pat McCorkle, McCorkle Casting, Ltd; and John W. Parmelee as Technical Director. Shout outs also to the orchestra: Dana Saccamano, violin; Charles Wasserman, cello; Seth Lisle, bass; Bill Wasserman, trumpet; Dave Hiscox, horn; Paul Gerst, trombone; Heather Wagner, reed 1/piccolo/flute/clarinet; Alan Wasserman, reed 2/flute, clarinet; Michael Paglione, reed 3/oboe/clarinet; Richard Guastamachio, percussion; John Pike, keyboard 1/conductor; and Paul Feyer, keyboard 2.
CRT’s 1776 is exceptional. With its clever lyrics balanced by quick and witty dialogue, delivered by an outstanding cast and with consummate attention to detail pulled together in the masterful direction by the one and only Mann, it’s a fun and engaging slice of history. Take it from me – it’s a non-stop ride you won’t want to end. The only snoozing you’ll see is by Mr. Franklin (who reportedly clocked in at a mere two to four hours per night), so it’s no wonder he couldn’t keep his eyes open! History haters be damned – this is a must-see for everyone; and bring the kids – you’ll be able to prove once-and-for-all that history is anything but boring!