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Review: ‘1776’ at McLean Community Players

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Who would have thought you could make a musical about something as serious as starting a revolution? Well, with music and lyrics by Sherman Edwards and book by Peter Stone, the 1969 Tony Award-winning 1776 does just that.The current production by the McLean Community Players provides a delightful and moving comedy-drama about how our country came to declare its independence from Great Britain. And, although some license is taken, most of the narrative is historically accurate.

John Adams of Massachusetts (Brent Stone), Thomas Jefferson of Virginia (Scott Gustaveson), Robert Livingston of New York (James Maxted), Ben Franklin of Pennsylvania (Jeff Westlake), and Roger Sherman of Connecticut (Jerry Hoffman) decide that Thomas Jefferson is the best person to write the declaration on independence. Photo by Irish Eyes Photography by Toby.

John Adams of Massachusetts (Brent Stone), Thomas Jefferson of Virginia (Scott Gustaveson), Robert Livingston of New York (James Maxted), Ben Franklin of Pennsylvania (Jeff Westlake), and Roger Sherman of Connecticut (Jerry Hoffman) decide that Thomas Jefferson is the best person to write the declaration on independence. Photo by Irish Eyes Photography by Toby.

The year is 1776. The Continental Congress has been meeting for 14 months and during all that time George Washington’s Continental Army has been fighting against the legendary British army, considered to be the best in the world. Despite the many deaths and the decision of King George III of Britain to declare the Americans to be in rebellion, Congress still has not even discussed whether to declare independence. John Adams (Brent Stone) is beside himself, saying that one useless man is a disgrace; two are called a law firm; and three or more are a congress. Benjamin Franklin (an animated Jeffery Westlake) is his ally but a number of others want to continue to try to make peace with Britain.

Adams also has the support of his long-suffering wife Abigail (Marissa Chapman), who points out that when John asked her to organize the ladies of Boston to make gunpowder he neglected to tell them how to make it, and that the ladies are in dire need of pins.

Back in Congress, after weeks of wrangling, a miracle occurs. All thirteen colonies finally realize that history demands they formalize their break from Britain and begin a noble experiment: The United States of America. The delegates know they are literally putting their heads in nooses if they lose the war, but they have so much faith in their cause that they take the risk—and change the world in the process. For the first time in history, a nation would be governed by the people’s elected representatives.

In this production, Director Annie O’Neill Galvin leads a talented cast, who have the competence and polish of a professional theatre company. Music Director John Edward Niles leads the onstage performers as well as a talented 10-piece orchestra through a varied and challenging score.

Costume Designer Juliana Cofrancesco and Set Designers George Farnsworth and Bill Glikbarg skillfully transport the audience to the appropriate time and place. And, while 1776 is definitely an ensemble piece, there is a smorgasbord of spectacular individual performances.

Brett Stone as the “obnoxious and disliked” John Adams turns in a bravura performance. He expresses his frustration with Congress in “Piddle, Twiddle, and Resolve” and laments that “not one problem do they solve.” (One marvels at how Congress hasn’t changed in 240 years!)

Marissa Chapman as Abigail Adams provides the perfect counterpoint. Her beautiful soprano voice soars in the transcendently romantic aria “Till Then” as Abigail pledges to her husband that they will belong to each other forever.

The talented Scott Gustaveson plays Thomas Jefferson, who yearns for his beautiful wife. When he is assigned the most important task in American history—writing the Declaration of Independence—he supposedly cannot do it until his wife comes to Philadelphia to inspire him. This particular subplot is not historically accurate, but it makes for a wonderful love scene.

Leslie Lewis plays Jefferson’s wife, Martha, and with her strong, sweet voice, she lights up the stage with the romantic ballad, “He Plays the Violin.” Even the serious and staid John Adams and the wise and philosophical Ben Franklin join her in the waltz.

Richard Henry Lee is portrayed by Mytheos Holt with amazing comic timing and panache, as he promises to get his home colony to sponsor a resolution on independence. Holt shines in his signature number, “The Lees of Old Virginia” combining clever lyrics and outrageous physical comedy.

Another standout performance is given by the ultra-talented Jonathan Cagle-Mulberg as Charles Thomson, the Secretary of the Congress. Although his character has only a limited musical assignment, Cagle-Mulberg’s acting is brilliant throughout the entire piece. He delivers his lines with smooth confidence and a speaking voice that projects to the last row. His emotional range is remarkable, and even when he is not speaking, he gives an effectively nuanced performance with facial expressions, body language, and pantomime.

Edward Rutledge of South Carolina (James Myers) sings about the North’s complicity in the slave trade (“Molasses to Rum”) even as they denounce it. Photo by Irish Eyes Photography by Toby.

Edward Rutledge of South Carolina (James Myers) sings about the North’s complicity in the slave trade (“Molasses to Rum”) even as they denounce it. Photo by Irish Eyes Photography by Toby.

Derek Marsh displays his impressive vocal prowess as an unnamed army courier who sings the heart-wrenching “Momma Look Sharp.” With a plaintive melody and sad lyrics, he tells the story of a mother searching for her dead son after a bloody battle. Lighting Designer Lynne Glickbarg’s appropriate choices add to the pathos of the scene.

James Myers as Edward Rutledge of South Carolina stops the show with the haunting, almost supernatural, “Molasses to Rum.” With his deep, rich, defiant voice, stunning vocal range, and impeccable vocal dynamics, Myers accuses the Northern colonies of hypocrisy by profiting from the slave trade.

Melissa Dunlap’s superb choreography is very much in evidence in a group performance of “Cool, Considerate Men.” Led by John Dickinson (Shawn Cox), members of Congress dance an all-male minuet while singing lyrics with biting political satire.

The cast of '1776.' Photo by Irish Eyes Photography by Toby.

The cast of ‘1776.’ Photo by Irish Eyes Photography by Toby.

McLean Community Players’ production of 1776 features memorable songs, brilliant performances, and a fascinating story. If you are interested in American history, or even if you’re not, you should definitely see 1776. Arguably one of the best historical musicals ever created, it will make you proud to be an American.

Running Time:  Approximately 2 hours and 45 minutes, with one 15-minute intermission.

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1776 plays through February 21, 2016 at McLean Community Players performing at the McLean Community Center’s Alden Theatre – 1234 Ingleside Avenue, in McLean, VA. For tickets, call the box office at (866) 811-4111, or purchase them online.

LINKS:
Meet the Cast of McLean Community Players’ ‘1776’: Part 1: Brent Stone.

Meet the Cast of McLean Community Players’ ‘1776’: Part 2: James Myers.

Meet the Cast of McLean Community Players’ ‘1776’: Part 3: Leslie Lewis.

RATING: FIVE-STARS-82x1555.gif

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