1776, Book by Peter Stone, Music and Lyrics by Sherman Edwards. Directed by Ron Holgate.
Reviewed by J. Peter Bergman
"You cool, considerate men..."
What could be more American than to spend Saturday with two American legends - Hal Holbrook as Mark Twain - and Sunday with the men who made America out of the rough earth of the thirteen colonies in the classic American musical, 1776. No two shows could be more unalike. Holbrook has memorized hundreds of Twainís writings and each performance, played out over 54 years, is different as he picks and chooses what he wants to perform based on the temper of the nation, the place, the time, the feel of the audience. He embodies the role, becomes the man on the lecture circuit and is, really is, Mark Twain Tonight. At the other end of the spectrum, twenty seven actors recreate other historic figures from our personal history and play out the tale of the creation of the Declaration of Independence. Unlike the Mark Twain event, where we have no idea what weíll hear, in the musical we know that the ending is going to be the approval and signing of that specific document. The glory of the show is in the suspense, however. Each time it plays the audience wonders if that outcome is actually possible and when things finally fall into place, as they must, there is a catharsis like no other, at least for an American.
At the New York State Theatre Institute in Troy, New York, this show is a crown jewel. They have played it before, at least twice, and with each incarnation it breaks hearts and breaks records. I always tell people I dislike the show, but it isnít really true. I dislike the emotions that it drags up and out of me. At least seven times, at this most recent performance, I found myself reduced to tears and one of those times almost to sobs. Those are tears, primarily, of joy. Joy at the romance and love that sustains one man through the indignity of Congress, joy at the survival of one young soldier at the death of his friends, joy at the resolution of issues among men who learn that to move forward we must take a step back into partial disgrace and, yes, even joy at the horrors of realizing that no one is free of blame in the worst aspects of human behavior.
1776 is a brilliant piece of theater and this company does all it can to make that brilliance come back to life. They have a few obstacles to overcome and they manage to do their best in achieving that. For one thing there is no orchestra. Instead we have two synthesizers who make thin sounds, tinny music at best. They have an excellent percussionist and a fine violinist to instill the right moods in many numbers, but there is that thin sound where the mind demands brass and woodwinds. Itís hard to get past that, but ultimately itís possible.
There are a few actors in principal roles who just cannot sing and this is a musical. That is harder to overcome. But there are some wonderful performances from most of the company and a few that must be singled out for special praise.
Joel Aroeste is a delicious Benjamin Franklin spouting wisdom where good advice would do and dancing up a storm in spite of a "gouty leg." Brian Sheldon does well by Connecticutís Roger Sherman, a skeptic with heart and a strong sense of personal limitations. Brett Essenter is a fine Robert Livingston and Mort Hess is a perfect Lewis Morris, the two men who comprise the uninspired New York delegation. Michael Steese does a fine job portraying the rum-soaked, but genuinely ardent Stephen Hopkins of Rhode Island and Michael Cannon handles the subtleties of Delawareís ailing Caesar Rodney with grace and care. John Romeo gives his all to John Hancock and his final outburst over signing the declaration is a personal triumph for this actor.
As Thomas Jefferson, the author of the document, David Baecker does everything he can do. He is not the handsomest Jefferson, nor the tallest, nor the brightest, but his Virginian has a great deal of heart and sincerity and that makes up for the other things he cannot bring to the role. Mary Jane Hansen as his wife is lovely, almost too lovely, but she adds a great deal to the reenactment of their legendary affair. Her number, "He Plays the Violin" manages to tug a few heartstrings.
John Adams, the central figure of the play, is being played here by Gary Lynch. Lynchís portrayal of the "obnoxious and disliked" Adams is so strong and to the point that he was, actually, obnoxious and I disliked him along with the rest of the members of Congress. Itís a very strong performance and an excellent one, but he does add a hard edge that is difficult to overlook until he is joined on stage, three times, by his distant and equally strong-willed wife, Abigail, played here by the charming Anny DeGange. She is almost perfect in the role. Her walk is a bit too affirmative, a bit to 21st century, but everything else about her performance is perfection. Every appearance created that sensation of joyful tears for me and she humanized Lynchís Adams to the point of near-embarrassment.
Surprisingly good as Andrew McNair was Carole Edie Smith and equally remarkable as the sniveling Judge James Wilson was John McGuire. David M. Girard gave a blood-chilling rendition of "Molasses to Rum" in his role as Edward Rutledge.
The show runs three hours and every moment of it is worthwhile. Richard Finkelsteinís set is excellent and Karen Kammerís costumes are perfect. John McLain has a way with lighting and his intrusion of natural and unnatural light through the tall windows and other-worldly places is wonderful. Brent Griffinís wigs are something to see, especially the ones that donít quite do what a gentlemanís wig is supposed to do. Even those help to define characters for the observant eye.
Ron Holgate, who was in the original company back in 1969, playing Richard Henry Lee, has directed the show with much of the same flair he brought to that role. If not all of it feels the same, thatís good. There are very different actors on this stage.
A good family show, one that even children sit through enthralled - consider its length - this is something I recommend highly. But see it soon. One day these men will sign that document and the show will close. I think.
a scene from the 2006 production at NYSTI; photo provided
1776 plays at the Schacht Fine Arts Center at Russell Sage College in Troy, New York through March 19. There are weekday performances at 10:00AM and evening performances at 8:00PM and matinees at 2:00PM. Tickets range in price from $10 for children to $20 for adults, cheap at twice the price. For a full schedule, call the NYSTI box office at 518-274-3256 or check their website at www.nysti.org.