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RAISE THE FLAG FOR '1776' AT LYRIC STAGE

1776

 

Music and Lyrics by Sherman Edwards

Book by Peter Stone

Directed by Spiro Veloudos

Musical Direction by Jonathan Goldberg

Produced by Rebecca Low

Choreography by Ilyse Robbins

Scenic Design by Janie E. Howland

Costumes Coordinated by Gail Astrid Buckley

Lighting Design by Scott Clive

Production Stage Manager, Adele Nadine Traub

 

Performances through October 14, 2006

Box Office 617-585-5678     www.lyricstage.com

 

Imagine the United States of America with a population of only two million people, disbursed among 13 colonies answerable to the Crown countless miles across the ocean.  Picture a chamber in which 19 representatives of those colonies gather to discuss important issues and try to legislate solutions to common problems, yet with few resources and little support from the Mother country.  Add to that scenario the dreaded taxation without representation and people might start to get a little hot under the collar. 

 

In the steamy, sultry late spring and early summer of 1775 in Philadelphia, the Second Continental Congress was more than a little hot under the collar.  Or at least John Adams was all fired up and doing his best to fan the flames under his congressional brethren, hoping to spark the fight for independency.  This is the story told in 1776, the Tony Award-winning musical opening the 2006-2007 season at The Lyric Stage Company.

1776 unabashedly celebrates the nation's birth and the Lyric's production turns it into a smashing party.  Every delegate to this Congress gives a performance worthy of a landslide re-election.  Peter A. Carey as Adams opens the proceedings with an angry tirade about his lackadaisical colleagues, exhorting them to "vote for independency" ("For God's Sake, John, Sit Down").  With his tone of voice, facial expressions, and body language, Carey lets us know immediately what this diminutive man is about.  In his own words, he's obnoxious and not well liked within the group, but his passion and energy are boundless.  While the ensemble loll at their tables fanning themselves, crying for someone to open up a window, Adams goes on to mock their inactivity and indecisiveness ("Piddle, Twiddle").

Lest we think that John is a one-trick pony, we are introduced (in his mind) to his strong, capable wife Abigail Adams, brought to life by Eileen Nugent.  Back at home in Boston, she is at once lovely and lovelorn, with every nuance of both of those characteristics audible in Nugent's tender voice.  Her duet with her husband ("Till Then') shows us their deep, abiding love for each other, even as they are separated by time, distance, and conflicting needs (saltpeter vs. pins).

 

The chemistry between Nugent and Carey is in line with that of Carey and J.T. Turner, most impressive as Pennsylvania delegate Benjamin Franklin, Adams' strongest cohort in the debate over independency.  While the other representatives piddle and twiddle, reluctant to deal with the issue when force fed by Adams, the two plot and contrive to skin the cat in a different way.  Enter Virginia delegate Richard Henry Lee (Timothy Smith), he of the Virginia Lees, the larger than life personality, and the booming baritone, who agrees to bring forth a resolution for independency ("The Lees of Old Virginia").  Here's a lesson in politics for all of us: it's not the message, it's the messenger.

 

If you need to brush up on your U.S. history, 1776 helps the medicine go down in the most delightful way.  It chronicles the events from May 8 through July 4, from the formation of a committee to write the Declaration of Independence, to Thomas Jefferson's writer's block (and unblocking), through the many days of arduous debate, and even shows how the eagle became the national symbol.  (Historical note: Franklin's choice was the turkey, a noble bird that provided sustenance to the Pilgrims.)  (Political note: Does it seem a more appropriate choice today?)  The most cynical among us can swell with pride upon reviewing the actions of these men in the nascent days of The United States of America.  As Benjamin Franklin says, they are "ordinary men trying to get a job done."

 

Some of the most spellbinding moments occur in the final scenes of Act One when the Conservatives sing "Cool, Considerate Men" by way of explaining their position against independency.  The haunting "Momma Look Sharp" sung by the young courier (Andrew "Curly" Glynn) who brings dispatches from General George Washington at the front follows and abruptly ends the act.

 

The action becomes taut in Act Two as Jefferson's (Terry O'Malley) Declaration is read to the Congress and they discuss and amend it over a period of six days.  As lines and words are scratched out of the original document, Adams loses patience and fears its decimation.  When the contingent from the south insists upon the removal of any reference to abolishing slavery, with frayed nerves Adams and South Carolina delegate Edward Rutledge (Christopher Chew) go toe to toe over the issue.  Chew delivers a raw, intense "Molasses to Rum" in which he details the north's complicity in the slave trade.  This becomes the deal breaker.  While Adams expresses concern over how posterity will view the founding fathers if they leave it alone, Franklin convinces him that independency by unanimous vote of all 13 colonies is the one and only mission.

 

With the vote deadline approaching, despite the fact that we know how it all turns out, there is palpable suspense in the Chamber.  We see the soul-searching and the courageousness in their faces as each man voices his Yea or Nay, as well as the relief and jubilation when the final vote is tallied.  We know the difficult road that will be traveled to achieve sovereignty for the USA, but are buoyed up in the moment as sure as if we, too, are present in Philadelphia in the summer of 1775. 

 

The size of the cast makes it impossible to name them all in this review, but individually and collectively they did an outstanding job, both acting and singing.  Jennifer Ellis is a charmer as Martha Jefferson and shines as she gushes about her husband ("He Plays the Violin").  O'Malley is understated as the taciturn Jefferson, but speaks strongly when the script calls for it.  Kevin Ashworth keeps the proceedings under control as President of Congress John Hancock.  Jack Agnew provides welcome comic relief as Steven Hopkins of Rhode Island.  Frank Gayton is sufficiently smarmy as the conservative Pennsylvanian John Dickinson, and John Costa looks decidedly uncomfortable when called upon to make up his mind as the third delegate from PA. 

 

Director Spiro Veloudos has wanted to direct this musical for nearly three decades and has mounted it with great vigor.  He has employed multi-talented actors and a dynamic creative team, all of whom have to overcome the space constraints of the Lyric Stage.  While there is not a great deal of actual dancing in the show, it is not so simple to choreograph the traffic patterns for 26 cast members, the largest in the Lyric's history.  Musical Director Jonathan Goldberg needs some assistance from an actor onstage to cue the singers for the downbeat and relies on a monitor to view the goings-on from his backstage perch.  The seven-piece orchestra fills the room with stirring sounds, even when only the snare drum is rat-a-tat-tatting.

 

Janie E. Howland's set is simple and utilitarian, representing the Chamber of the Continental Congress with free-hanging windows, a vote tally board, a large wall calendar, and several tables and chairs for the delegates.  Each of the tables has quill pens, paper, and handheld fans that are used throughout to reinforce the message that it was not only tempers that were hot in this room.  The costumes (Gail Astrid Buckley) and wigs (Jason Allen) tap into our sense of vision and add to the authenticity of this period piece.  The use of spotlights to separate John and Abigail from the stopped action is effective, as are the faux candles to indicate the fall of evening.

1776 is ultimately about vision.  Peter Stone and Sherman Edwards took years to create this work and were rewarded with the Tony Award for Best Musical in 1969, beating out Hair and Promises, Promises.  Director Veloudos melded his love for musical theatre and history to stage this show in Boston in 2006, a time when our country is again involved in critical debate.  But it all goes back to Bostonian John Adams who persevered to bring about his dream of a new nation, freed from the tyranny of Britain, and united in its purpose.  We would do well to revisit those tenets and this production makes us want to.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


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From This Author Nancy Grossman