BWW Review: 1776 at Wichita Scottish Rite Signature Theatre
Philadelphia, Pennsylvania is historically known as being the city of brotherly love. With a current population of over one and half million residents, a lot has happened throughout the centuries during the city's rich past. It's a city that has won world series, held conventions on women's rights and a place that inspired 'rocket man' Elton John's hit "Philadelphia Freedom" based on the Philadelphia Freedoms world tennis team, ultimately becoming an anthem for the city. And long before 'covfefe' tweets, proposed border walls, and transgender military bans, Congress met for the first time in Philadelphia to formulate and write the Declaration of Independence, a document holding dear to the truths that all men are created equal and are forever granted the rights of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Wichita Scottish Rite Signature Theatre recreates the 'room where it all happens' in their current and limited engagement production of 1776 now running until July 3rd at Wichita Center for the Performing Arts.
Before the production began, I was greeted by two lovely ushers dressed in period costumes in the lobby with a program and hugs. Fine, I will admit, these seldom behaved women are my good friends Sheryl Connell and Karen Hultman. If you do go, do not be fooled by their get-up. They are true progressives making history. I then entered the auditorium where I found a comfortable seat in the back of the house where I normally like to sit. It was not long after until artistic director Deb Campbell addressed the audience with special announcements regarding the theatre and the building itself, which is now under renovations to be a new home for retail shopping. Something worth sharing is that Signature Theatre is a non-profit organization and community-based theatre running off solely on ticket sales and donor contributions, and if you would like to make a tax-deductible donation, you could do so during intermission in the lobby. I furiously skimmed the program during her speech and began to count the amount of people involved in the production; I was overwhelmed. Over forty or more volunteers dedicated their time, talent, and treasure to making 1776 possible right here in Wichita, and these performers have exceptional backgrounds in education, radio broadcast, hair, and even physical therapy. Be sure to read the program thoroughly for all the performer's interesting biographies. The musical itself has lyrics and music by Sherman Edwards, his only Tony Award winning musical, but the script was written by Peter Stone who is also known for My One and Only and The Will Rogers Follies. The program itself is exceptionally well done and is put together very professionally, with lots of interesting information. And then, the lights dimmed, the orchestra played the overture and the show began.
Under the musical direction of Diane Houseman, the overture at first sounded slow in tempo, but eventually picked right up for the remainder of the evening, matching the pace of the singers. The first act ran for about an hour and forty minutes, with wonderful show-stopping numbers such as "For God's Sake, John, Sit Down" or "The Lees of Old Virginia," a tune featuring Nathan Houseman (Richard Henry Lee), James Robert Hurst (Benjamin Franklin), and Ted Woodward (John Adams). Houseman, husband to the music director, delivered with good phrasing, diction, and rhythm. In scene three, "But, Mr. Adams-" we lost Houseman, but kept Woodward and Hurst plus added Paul Ellis Jackson as Thomas Jefferson, Gilbert Pearce as Roger Sherman, and Jeff Rosales as Robert Livingston. Vocals in this number, particularly from Jackson, were audible, resonate, and powerful and choreography was simple featuring a feather pen, eventually being used for signatures. Bryan Welsby was quite fun as the drunkard character Stephen Hopkins, who was frank in wanting rum and cohesion. In the duet "Your, Yours, Yours" sung by Woodward and Lydia Harbutz who portrayed his wife Abigail Adams, the conveyance was touching, well-staged and well-sung. Mary Valdez as Martha Jefferson was absolutely wonderful. Valdez, with a performance background since the age of twelve, was a quadruple threat in singing, dancing, acting and flirting with her stage husband Paul Jackson. Hurst remarks of their constant affairs in love making and his punch line is hilarious. Be sure to listen for it. There is even a great cameo by Ann Elizabeth Garvey! If I had the opportunity to compliment all the forty performers, I would. Each had wonderful performance qualities about them. Finally, it was Oklahoma City University student Maxwell McIntire as the Courier who sang "Momma Look Sharp" just beautifully. McIntire, whose aura on stage makes him appear to be in a whole different performance level from the rest, sang the song with grace and warnings of bloody war and massacre with newly found freedoms. His closing song to act one will leave you hushed, breathless and moved.
The second act ran for about an hour and is powerful, with such themes of keeping freedoms away from slaves. Justin Ralph (Edward Rutledge) supplies a haunting song on the subject revealing the truths of the deep south and the passing of the declaration. Hurst counters with a riveting monologue. But it's Woodward who compassionately delivers the song "Is Anybody There" in a quiet hall about seeing fireworks, parades and a new free America. During the final scenes leading up to curtain call, pay close attention to the votes of 'yea' and the signing of the declaration. It is thought-provoking.
Costumes, also done by Campbell, were coordinated and appropriate. Campbell always does an excellent job costuming a show. Sound designer Emily Jones made all performers able to be heard, which is sometimes a difficult feat. Some actors appeared not to be wearing microphones, but still all projected fine. The set was striking and well-constructed, giving adequate feel to the hall; however, I felt there could have been additional scenery in front of the blue curtain, especially at times when it was closed. Trees and foliage or patriotic pleated flags, for example, would have been a nice touch. In the act one ensemble song "Cool, Cool Considerate Men," there was a sense of apprehension in joining in unison song, especially with lyrics. Also, some line deliveries could have picked up in pace, especially in immediately reacting to others in order to not lose the arch of the scene. Finally, some performers wore makeup and some performers did not. Although heavy makeup is not needed in this space, some simple foundation and blush could have been easily implemented.
Overall, 1776 was a fine production. Should you go see it? I vote, yea, courteously!
What: 1776, Wichita Scottish Rite Signature Theatre
Where: Wichita Center for Performing Arts, 9112 E. Central Ave.
When: July 1-3, 7pm
Cost: $18, $14, & $10, with discounts for students, military and seniors
Maxwell McIntire sings "Momma Look Sharp" in Wichita Scottish Rite Signature Theatre's production of 1776