BWW Review: History Comes Alive with Eight O'Clock Theatre's Winning 1776: THE MUSICAL
When the musical 1776 first opened on Broadway in March of 1969, America had just endured what historians consider its most violent year. Our country had been struggling through assassinations, war, uprisings, and deadly clashes between protestors and the police. 1968 was over, and it was time for Americans to step back and take a close look at themselves, and what better way than with 1776: THE MUSICAL, a show about the birth of our country performed in a most entertaining fashion?
A year after 1776's Broadway premiere, it became the very first full production of a musical to be performed at the White House. So when we see images of President Obama watching an early rendition of Lin Manuel-Miranda's Hamilton, we must realize that it's nothing new. President Nixon did it decades earlier when he watched 1776, and he even had an issue with the depiction of conservatives in the anachronistic "Cool, Cool Considerate Men" number. (It's anachronistic due to its lyrics--"To the right, ever to the right, never to the left, forever to the right"; as any historian will tell you, the terms "left" and "right" to deem political leanings were not devised until the French Revolution in 1789, a full 13 years after the signing of the Declaration of Independence.)
Flash forward to 2016. People are already comparing this nutty year to 1968--with the most insane Presidential campaign in memory combined with too much international and domestic violence (and we're only half way through the year). It's blood-drenched and off-the-rails crazy; perhaps we should label our current year "1968 2.0." Is there a better time to pause for a moment, to take a breath, and to watch one more time how we got here? Perhaps this will put our present circumstances into perspective, and maybe it will make us question once again what freedom really means. Thankfully, Eight O'clock Theater has done just that by putting on 1776: THE MUSICAL for us to re-discover what this place called the United States of America is all about. And on top of all of that, it's a stellar production with the strongest local cast I have seen in years.
I was not expecting this. My tastes lean more toward the edgy and the offbeat, the dark and the risky. I prefer galvanizing rock scores to more traditional "safe" musicals. (And trust me, you will not find anything like "Totally F***ed" here.) That said, as I watched EOT's first class production of 1776: THE MUSICAL, I was totally enraptured. This became one of the supreme theatre-going experiences of the year. Yes, on par with some of the better professional musicals I've seen of late, and yet it was performed by a community theatre group where the actors aren't even paid. But EOT is not just any community theatre. As I have often said, they are a step above most other community theatres.
With 1776, they are now several steps above the other community theatres because this is one terrific show.
The music of 1776 is exquisite, and it's a shame that the composer-lyricist Sherman Edwards didn't really do anything else of note in his career. (He died in 1981.) A former high school history teacher, he wrote some good songs prior to writing 1776: Elvis Presley's "Flaming Star"; "Wonderful, Wonderful," made famous by Johnny Mathis; and the Happenings' "See You in September," a 1966 hit that will get stuck in your head if you're not careful. 1776 is Edwards' one-off masterpiece, his Tony-winning claim to fame. (And Peter Stone's book cannot be discounted, especially not in this show which is the only musical I know where there is a 30-minute stretch without a musical number.)
The fine folks of EOT have done 1776 justice. It's so good, such a must-see production, that I wish its run lasted more than a couple of weeks (it closes July 24th).
This is an ensemble piece if ever there was one. When the show first opened and was nominated for various Tony Awards, William Daniels (Dr. Craig on "St. Elsewhere" and Ben Braddock's dad in The Graduate) famously played John Adams and was nominated in the "featured actor" category prompting the actor to withdraw his nomination in protest (he thought he should be nominated as a leading actor). In the EOT production, the immensely talented Dan Mason takes the reigns and just lights up the stage as Adams. He's pushy and arrogant, prompting his peers to sing "Sit Down, John." Mason's rendition of "Piddle, Twiddle and Resolve" hits just the right note early on.
Adams' letters to his wife, Abigail, played stunningly by Sadra Bostick, are simply beautiful. Her songs with Mason's Adams--"Till Then," "Yours, Yours, Yours," and "Compliments"--are the definition of loveliness.
As everyone's favorite founding father, the ribald Ben Franklin, Ben Taylor immediately becomes an audience favorite. He's what we expect for Franklin--full of life, a little bit naughty, and impossible to forget. As Thomas Jefferson, Billy Masuck has a tremendous singing voice, but it takes us awhile to respond to him as an actor. He seems to be trying to find his character throughout the show. This may be by design, because the Jefferson presented here is rather shy at first, not the solid man of history that we all know. I would like to see more of a change in him as the show progresses, from the pre-Declaration wallflower to his post-Declaration Renaissance Man. Masuck sometimes blends in the action instead of standing out, and you don't first recognize that he will become THE Thomas Jefferson, Superstar. (This is nothing like Daveed Diggs' conception of Jefferson.)
Jefferson's wife, played splendidly by Amy Phillips, sings of her husband's talents in one of the show's loveliest numbers, "He Plays the Violin."
The strongest group number is the aforementioned "Cool, Cool Considerate Men." This is a stunner, with the powerful Jonathan Pouliot (as John Dickinson) and his fellow conservatives lending tremendous vocal work. It's 1776's showstopper. Best of all in it is Derek Baxter, as George Read of Delaware, who gets my award for Ensemble Member MVP. He's always in character, always snooty in a huffy eye-rolling kind of way, and in "Cool, Cool Considerate Men," his vocals are out of this world. He hits incredible notes.
As Henry Lee of Virginia, the likable Alan Mahoney Jr. has a booming voice and sells the hell out of his big number, "The Lees of Old Virginia."
The single best vocal performance in the cast goes to Stephen Fee as Edward Rutledge of South Carolina, who delivers a home run version of "Molasses to Rum," a song about slavery that left me in awe. Fee was so good as Jesus in Jesus Christ Superstar, and he's even better here.
Together, the cast resemble the historical figures seen in John Trumbull's famous painting of the signing of the Declaration of Independence that can be found in the Capitol Rotunda. Some of the cast are stronger than others, but everyone is always in character. These are some of the finest performers in our area: Mike Arnold, Chris Carmichael, T.J. Gill, Joey Harper, Thom Jay, Dylan Kubiak, Rick Laitenberger, Chaz Merkel, David Middleton, Brett Nichols, Noah Pliss, Michael Silvestri, Gary L. Smith and Christopher Strong. Jerry Slutzky is quite solid in the important role of John Hancock, famous for his signature and as the President of the Congress, and Brian Yarbrough makes the most of his part of Charles Thomson, Secretary of the Continental Congress.
Talented Steven Fox as the Courier offers strong work, but he has the most thankless song in the show. Originally, 1776 was performed without an intermission. But in most productions, an intermission has been added, which is a good thing (it's a long show, but never boring). However, there is not an adequate place to add the intermission. Most company's put it right after the Courier's song, "Momma, Look Sharp," but it seemed a weird place for a break. I wondered if the intermission should come after "Cool, Cool Considerate Men," which would leave the audience on a high note. But then "Momma, Look Sharp," though well sung by Fox, is a weird place to start the second act, especially when "The Egg" serves that purpose much better. I'm still up in the air about this.
Much of the success of this production belongs to the visionary director, James Grenelle, who also choreographs. He handpicked his cast and has guided a thoroughly wonderful production. Marilyn S. Deighton's costume designs are as good as it gets. This show, like Hamilton, needs top-notched costumes, and they do not disappoint. All of them are beautifully rendered and specific. Christopher Strong and Patricia Bates Smith were responsible for the wig styling, and also do a fine job. C.J. Marshall's lighting is effective; I especially like the angry blood-red treatment during "Molasses to Rum." Tom Hansen's set design works wonders, especially the tote board featuring each of the 13 original colonies.
A nitpick: In the scene where Ben Franklin is posing for a painting, I wish the actor playing Franklin wore the same clothes as depicted in the portrait (and also waited and put his glasses on after the painting session since he's not wearing them on the canvas).
My main qualm is not with this particular production; it's with the score. There are simply not enough songs (13 in total, some of them very short). With this glorious cast, I want them singing all evening. They sound tremendous, and you will be hell bent to find a professional company that has harmonies like this one. It's just there are too few musical numbers for so fine a production. The ones that are here are beyond delightful, and I'm selfish--I want more.
Musical director Jeremy D. Silverman leads his outstanding orchestra, which includes Brooke Stuart on drums, Dan Kolsky on bass, Joe Bonelli and Chris Howard on trumpet, Colleen Chrien on trombone, Gary Wright on French horn, Tonny Fucco and Diana Belcher on reeds, and Valeria Frege on the all-important violin.
I am very happy with the people who created the EOT program. Not only do they provide a solid song list (always a good sign), but after each actor's biography, they add certain facts about the character being portrayed. A nice touch.
There is a moment in 1776 that I will not soon forget. It occurs near the end, when the last holdout shouts out his "yea" and suddenly our country was born. At that instant, there is a pause, a wisp of necessary silence. The characters realize what they have done. They know that this is it, one of the most important moments in history, and they are there as witnesses. And so are we. The show and the cast live up to this moment.
Who knew we needed this production so much? I would say it's your patriotic duty to travel to the Largo Cultural Center to watch it, but that undermines how damned entertaining the whole thing is. Don't see it only because it's good for you; see it because it's so much fun--a great show given top-of-the-line treatment. I have seen several productions at EOT, and not only is this by far the finest of the lot, but it is also one of the best community theatre shows I have ever had the pleasure of attending. Mighty high praise, but it has earned every bit of it. 1776 is a triumph.
1776: THE MUSICAL runs thru July 24th at the Largo Cultural Center. For tickets, please call (727) 587-6793.