Somebody ought to open up a window! And let the cool, cool considerate breeze of independence waft through! The Milburn Stone Theatre is proud to present a patriotic musical to kick off its summer season. 1776 takes to the stage under the direction of S. Lee Lewis, with Musical Direction provided by Marji Eldreth. This revolutionary musical, having won the Tony for Best Musical, is the perfect show as the summer progresses right into the nation’s most patriotic holiday. A dramatic but uplifting and entertaining musical that encompasses the months leading up to the congressional congress’ call to freedom from the tyrannical British, it’s history at its finest— in musical theatre format. With a brilliant cast, phenomenal set (donated by Ford’s Theatre) and a solid score, this play is sure to get everyone in the audience in the spirit of the American Revolution.
The look of 1776 is honed sharply in upon by the incredible costumes used to outfit the delegates of congress. The frilly shirts, cuffed pants and tights; right up to the coifed and whitened wigs, it’s all there, giving the audience a peak back into history. The costumes, provided by AT Jones & Sons, create stunning visuals when the entire Congress is seen together upon the stage, and help the enhance the illusion of the stifling heat in Philadelphia.
Director S. Lee Lewis wrangles together a brilliant group of men (and two women) for this monumental production; really crafting a sense of discord among them. Their physical actions as a whole lay testament to the conditions in which the congress finds themselves. From the very beginning many of the congressmen wear pinched expressions, desperately fanning themselves in a futile attempt to keep cool. They shuffle and amble about like old men should when closed in tight quarters, and each individual creates a distinctive character. Lewis unifies the ensemble of men in gestures as well, most prominently noted every time the courier enters, reeking of the battlefield, in the way they more than rudely shy away from his stench.
Lewis doubles as the shows choreographer, and while there are virtually no dance numbers to speak of, two moments immediately spring to mind that are indeed both amusing and well structured. “Cool, Cool Considerate Men,” a song featured in Act II, has Dickenson of Pennsylvania leading the conservatives in a flouncing minuet most befitting of their snobbery. But the real comic dancing, laid in for good humorous effect by Lewis, comes during “But, Mister Adams,” featuring five of the nation’s founding fathers marching and prancing about as they refuse to pen the declaration. Simplistic in its nature, Lewis’ choreography achieves the desired effect through flawless execution.
No man too small in this production seems to fit the build of every none principle player as each individual member of congress (and those not of the congress but still present) make themselves known. The Courier (Chandler Smith) who appears frequently throughout the production, has a stunning and serene, albeit haunted, solo in “Mama Look Sharp.” Smith’s voice sends chills down your spine in this number because it is a harrowing lullaby in its own right, his pure dulcet tone delivering the song with swift justice.
Other men of note included the grumbling McNair (Phil Hansel), the custodian. With a thick Scotch-Irish brogue, Hansel adds a hint of comedy here and there, especially when dealing with the drunken Hopkins (Ralph Denton.) Lewis Morris (Richard Colon) of New York, makes his presence known, through one repetitive line, in his rich baritone-base voice. And Caesar Rodney (Brian Taylor) makes his place in the ensemble known through his physical approach to his ailing, and later dying character. A good ensemble, populated with flavorful folk, making this production that much more intriguing.
While the play may include a world of men, its writers did not forget the females. Playing as the only two women in the show, Abigail Adams (Kati Donovan) and Martha Jefferson (Amy Luchey) hold their own against the masculine powers of the performance, each settling easily into their solos with pitch perfect voices. Luchey plays the dainty frail Virginian wife with a lovely solo in “He Plays the Violin.” Luchey’s sweet simpering voice exudes her smitten feelings of love for Jefferson with a gentle touch. Donovan, playing the hearty Abigail is a much more grounded woman, though her songs are equally as perfect. Her voice blends splendidly with John Adams during “Till Then” and “Yours, Yours, Yours,” her emotions equally as in-love, though expressed in a much more kindred spirit fashion; a love of many years as opposed to Luchey’s youthful puppy love of her new husband. Both women have exceptional presence on the stage and add just the right hint of femininity to the show.
Matt Pearson (Thomas Jefferson), who doesn’t do much singing at all, has a hearty voice but an even more impressive silence. Peterson, featured in “But, Mister Adams,” with a thoroughly elongated belt, showcases his singing talents quite well here. While never truly having a solo all his own, his constant pacing once the declaration is being read grounds his character more thoroughly than any song ever could. Equally as twittered with his new bride as she is with him, Peterson turns Jefferson into a lover, much to John Adams’ chagrin.
Larger than life and unbelievab-‘Lee’ funny is Virginia’s other representative, Richard Henry Lee (Jamie Mikijanic). He takes to his solo “The Lees of Old Virginia” with gusto, and proud-“Lee” carries out every pun and joke in this song with a great handle on both rhythm and timing. His flamboyant zest makes the character’s presence barely tolerable, and he brings about the reprise-cap to the song obnoxious-‘Lee’ in a manner that does the character a great justice. His voice is powerful and thoroughly fitted with a Virginian accent, making Richard Henry Lee the most convincing man in congress.
A bawdy mind is a dangerous thing, unless it belongs to the inventor of the stove, whose foot has the gout. In that case, it’s a hilarious thing, as David Wills (playing the iconic Benjamin Franklin) proves. Adapting Franklin to be a slightly kooky, fruity aloof character works in Wills’ favor, adding a deeper layer of comedy to the production and ringing true echoes of some of Franklin’s more humorous one-liners and zingers in the production. His comic timing and overall comedic presence on the stage adds a few good laughs here and there; purposefully lightening the mood when things would otherwise get too serious. His flamboyant affectations carry straight into “But, Mister Adams,” and again in “The Egg,” making him one entertaining fellow.
Of course with every good intention there are some rotten eggs to be found and the two that stinketh in this production are Rutledge (David Allen) and Dickinson (Scott Mason,) Both Allen and Mason take on the task of being nefarious antagonists; and they succeed with great villainy. Allen, being the more poised and charmed of the two, uses his sultry southern accent to ‘charm-speak’ as it were, letting the way he turns a phrase flip the minds of those that listen. His upright posture and slow, deliberate movements are a testament to his southern gentleman upbringing. Crawling with unctuous intentions, Allen’s portrayal of the vile southerner is so slippery it’s a wonder he doesn’t slide right off the stage. And when he sings “Molasses to Rum,” it’s a filthy verbal poison that sets your teeth on edge just to hear it. So smooth and yet so sickening; his voice oozes with discontent and the putrid stench of foul truths; a stunning if revolting performance.
Mason takes the more blunt and pigheaded approach to his villainy; constantly bucking heads with John Adams. His song, “Cool, Cool Considerate Men” is much more subtle in its approach to exposing him for the antagonist that he is; impeding Adam’s work every step of the way. Mason’s approach to the character involves a slightly British accent, extremely appropriate considering the loyalties of divided Pennsylvania at the time. Constantly nettling and bristling with Adams, Mason’s character really brings a riled up temper to the full blown fight, belching anger like fire and brimstone as he dashes all over the tiered space of congress’s interior. When he stands face to face with Adams, the tension is so thick its palpable. An honest to goodness villain; Mason does the nasty character a great deal of justice.
It all comes down to John Adams (Ken Kemp). Ever passionate and driven for his cause and never once wavering in his convictions, Kemp takes to the role as if he were born for it. With pristine vocals and the appropriate belting range for numbers like “Piddle Twiddle,” and “Is Anybody There?” Kemp rises to the demands of the song with a flare, truly providing rich emotions to the latter and the right fury for the former. For as vehement as he is with the men in congress is as gentle and warm as he is when addressing his wife; making beautiful harmonies with her in “Yours, Yours, Yours,” and “Till Then.” His comic timing, though seldom utilized in this production, is spot on, and his keen sense of pacing to keep the conversations flowing at a natural rate is impressive. With a piercing voice for “Sit Down, John,” Kemp becomes more than just an agitator; he’s the driving force of progress in congress. A well-balanced emotional performance rings true in Kemp’s approach to the unstoppable man making for one incredible show.
While New York may abstain (courteously) you better not, at least not from getting tickets to this great revolutionary show!
Running Time: Approximately 2 hours and 45 minutes, with one intermission.