Signal Ensemble's '1776' A Remarkable Off-Loop Achievement

By: Jan. 31, 2008
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OK, class, it's time for a little history lesson. Question—in what year were war, sex, money, race and, above all, politics at the forefront of this nation's debates, both formal and informal?  Let's see.  2008?  Certainly.  1776?  Ah, absolutely.

And now for those bonus points—what about 1969?  Why, yes, of course!  All of the above.  It may be safe to say that these very subjects have formed the core of our now emotional, now intellectual national discourse every year since Europeans first descended on this continent some four hundred plus years ago.  Which makes the sui generis 1969 Broadway musical 1776 a great choice for revival almost anytime, but especially during a hard-fought Presidential primary season like the one facing us now.

Chicago's Signal Ensemble Theatre has mounted a finely-wrought revival of this Tony-winning show in the main performance space at the Chopin Theatre on the near northwest side, running now through March 1.  It is the company's first musical, and what a stellar, brave and bold way for it to enter the vibrant off-Loop musical theater scene!

For you see, 1776 is a musical like no other.  Impressively winning the Best Musical Tony over seriously stiff competition from Hair, Zorba and Promises, Promises, and featuring such soon-to-be-better-known actors as William Daniels, Paul Hecht, Howard Da Silva and Ken Howard (not to mention marking the Broadway debut of the very young Betty Buckley), the musical is the only one ever written by Sherman Edwards, a pianist, history teacher and Broadway actor who managed to unify his talents into a score both peppy and lyrical, both kitschy and complex.  The book is by Peter Stone, the highly successful bookwriter of Woman of the Year, Grand Hotel, The Will Rogers Follies and My One and Only, among others.  Among the many balls that juggler Stone kept in the air with this script is the famous, long sequence in the first act (is it 45 minutes?) in which not a twitter or tap of music is heard.  "What sort of musical IS this?," one wonders.  Well, a confident and fun one, maybe just slightly old-fashioned at times, but still a marvel of theatrical craft.

Ostensibly about the signing of the Declaration of Independence, the show is really about how that event came to be, or rather, very nearly didn't come to be.  It is to the credit of bookwriter Stone and the current production's director, Ronan Marra, that there is a great deal of suspense surrounding an event that everyone knows WILL ultimately happen.  (We are kept informed of the march toward independence by a prominent day-calendar, torn off to reveal the progression of time toward, now what was the date again, class?—ah, yes, July 4.)

It is the how, rather than the what, that keeps the audience engaged.  For regional squabbles, personality disputes, philosophical and moral differences, constant reminders of war, and the forming and breaking of political alliances all take place during the evening, and it is no small achievement that the comings and goings are crystal clear.  That legendary heat coming from Philadelphia that spring and summer were generated not only by the sun and by the debates inside Independence Hall, but by the very soul and fiber of the members of the Continental Congress, taking their lives into their hands while struggling to make sense of how their various lives could have led them to chart a course toward an unmistakably historic event.

And they are all here, our founding fathers in all their foibles and humanity, portrayed at the Chopin Theatre by the very best male talent in Chicago's current off-Loop musical theater community.  One distinctive about this show is that the ratio of men to women in the cast is about two dozen to two, or just about the inverse of the gender ratio in another Tony-winning musical, Nine.  Another way that 1776 is unique is that none of the male characters are conventional leading men—everyone is a character actor here.   And what characters!  Poets and preachers, lawyers and landowners—John Hancock and John Adams of Massachusetts, John Dickinson and Benjamin Franklin of Pennsylvania (famously on opposite sides of the independence question), Thomas Jefferson and Richard Henry Lee of Virginia—the list goes on.  Even General George Washington looms large, albeit through written dispatches from the warfront.

At the risk of leaving out a deserving name amongst a really well-oiled and richly-acting male ensemble, I must mention Phillip Winston's petulant and strong John Adams, and the John Dickinson of Jon Steinhagen, every bit Winston's equal despite having no solo musical numbers assigned to his character (are you keeping score of the strangeness of the material?).  Also, fine work was turned in on opening night by Vincent J. Lonergan and Ted Hoerl as the older men with famous quotes to utter (Franklin's "all hang together" quip and Stephen Hopkins' desire to behold "each man's face as he signs").  And again, excellent were Thomas M. Shea (the portly and energetic Samuel Chase), Joseph Stearns (the sprightly and magnetic Richard Henry Lee), Steve Welsh (the noble and dying Caesar Rodney) and Jeremy Trager (showy and fearless in the potential booby-trap that is the role of South Carolina's difficult Edward Rutledge).

The only women in the cast acquitted themselves quite well.  Lindsay Naas brought a sly coquettishness to her portrayal of Martha Jefferson in her brief scenes.  Anne Sheridan Smith brought a luminous physicality and charming wit to her portrayal of the distaff side of America's first political super couple, Abigail Adams.  Mention must also be made of the three attractive actors portraying the working class of 18th century America, Dan Granata, Matt Whalen and Eric Lindahl, who come together to end the show's first act with Lindahl's pure, straightforward rendition of the stark war ballad, "Momma, Look Sharp."   The opening night audience didn't dare take a breath or utter a sigh until the lights were safely out. 

The Thomas Jefferson of Tim Howard was slightly less effective than one would have hoped, but Jefferson has little to do in the first act but read his book and kiss his wife.  And in the second act, one hopes beyond hope that the script will directly address the fact that Jefferson the lover and Jefferson the slaveowner were quite literally the same man, more so than audiences in 1969 could reasonably have been expected to tolerate—though we know much more of the possible Jefferson/Sally Hemings relationship now.  Howard is tall and aristocratic enough, decisive and thoughtful enough, but to be the author of the Declaration itself and yet remain a decidedly secondary lead is a curious thing, indeed.  Though perhaps, in this instance, the musical reflects the real historical truth more than the combined legend of Jefferson and Adams would otherwise allow.  (Remember that our second and third presidents famously died on the very same day, July 4, 1826, fifty years to the day after the musical's legendary last scene.  And, by the way, the coup de theatre that ends the show is fully intact, and fully powerful, in the staging at hand.) 

The set of this production, designed in the barest of essentials by Melania Lancy, lit by Julie E. Ballard and Price Johnston and filled with props by Noel Henke, is highly effective in the large, brick-walled Chopin mainstage space.  Really, there may be no better way to give an audience a sense of really being in Independence Hall than this production—the stage space seems to be the exact size of the actual room it depicts, with no proscenium or curtain separating the desks, chairs and windows from the audience's stadium-style seats.

The effect of the first number in the show, "For God's Sake, John, Sit Down," with the men of the cast (are there 24?  I lost count!) singing at the top of their voices, filling the room with life and walking sticks and breeches and waistcoats by Laura M. Dana and wigs by Ora Jewell-Busche, is thrilling, positively thrilling.  There may be no larger male chorus in any Chicago theater right now, aside from certain heavily populated evenings down at the Lyric Opera of Chicago.  Really, the only problem in evidence with this 1776 is that the mid-size orchestra conducted by Andra Velis Simon was frequently too loud, or at least too strident (easily corrected).  Even THAT was not evident during the opening number!

Signal Ensemble Theatre has a real treat on its hands for Chicago audiences, a remarkable, rich and large-scale production of a challenging script and quirky score in only the company's fifth season.  1776 does much more than remind an audience that democracy in America has never meant "one person, one vote" at the national level.  It reminds us of what makes us American.  Our perilous freedom to be individuals, our frequent choice to compromise or be left out, our sense of wonder at the audacity of this continent in its geography, history, politics, priorities and resources—these very qualities and ideals are embodied by this remarkably varied and hardworking cast.

The achievement of this production is that this tale is told with us right there—told not like castor oil down the throats of bewildered children, but like honey from the throats of the storytellers in our midst.  Be taken back to a simpler time, but one astonishingly like our own, with this revival of a truly great and truly American musical.  You may get a little misty-eyed at the grandeur of a quill pen and inkwell. I know I did.

Signal Ensemble Theatre's production of 1776 runs at the Chopin Theatre, 1543 W. Division St. in Chicago, from January 25-March 1, 2008.  Tickets are $10-$25. Visit or call 773-347-1350.


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