AISLE SAY Florida                                                                

1776

Music & Lyrics by Sherman Edwards
Book by Peter Stone

Directed by Frank Galati
Music Directed by Michael Rice; Choreographed by Peter Amster
Florida State U. Center for the Performing Arts
5555 N. Tamiami Tr., Sarasota,941-351-9000
Nov. 16 through Dec. 22, 2012 

Reviewed by Marie J. Kilker

 

“1776“ by Asolo Rep is its best production that I have reviewed in over 20 years.  Why is that when such outstanding recent shows have been the important political and literary “Galileo“ directed in impeccable epic theater style as well as the thoughtfully conceived updated presentation of perhaps the best-ever musical “My Fair Lady“-----each a classic of its genre? Well, there’s a little of all a production can be and not an iota off in any element of “1776“ in the current Asolo revival. When the curtain rises, Russell Metheny’s interpretation of Independence Hall is one of the only sets I’ve seen that justifies your applause before you know if it’s suitable for the actors, action, activity.  The brown lathed backwall of windows let in Paul Miller’s bright morning, hot afternoon, start-of-eve natural light. (The design will also later illuminate individuals holding the stage sleeping, singing, swinging, speechifying down front as well as shine on the Adams‘ corresponding.) At the top tier over the delegates‘ seats presides authoritative Patrick Clear as John Hancock, to be assisted by Charles Thompson (able Jim Sorenson). To one side, is a prominent entrance for mostly comings and a few emotional goings. In between, a calendar times the days of meeting of the Second Continental Congress. Its men will occupy tiers of seats, sometimes shown in tableaux, other times in rigorous debate and more or less contentious discussion. They will be identified not just by names and districts but as much by their dress (costume Mara Blumenfeld’s designs from Roger Sherman’s simple everyday outfit suitable for humble portrayal  by Rob Riddle to the plain black of Joe Lauck‘s plain-speaking Stephen Hopkins and Mitchell Walker’s Rev. John Witherspoon to the fashionable lace and brocade of aristocratic Edward Rutledge). 
 
Down center becomes mainly John Adams‘ space for not only his arguments but at times his thoughts and emotions. Rightly so, for he shines as the Congress‘ hero (as does the fiercely intent Bernie Yvon of the drama and Adams‘ song). The play’s conflict plunges in medias res with delegates musically insisting “Sit Down, John.“ Drama comes interspersed with comic bits (Jay Lusteck bursting in as Richard Henry Lee complete with his riding crop or Andrew Boyer’s putting off speaking pieces of wisdom by Ben Franklin to take a snooze). There’s also a hoot of a minuet choreographed by Peter Amster to show how four delegates (including Jesse Dornan’s Robert Livingston and Rob Riddle’s Roger Sherman) represent typical reactions to ongoing arguments.  For romance, you won‘t forget Adams‘ epistolary romance with his Abigail (comely soprano Abby Mueller) or the sexy reunion of Brandon Dahlquist’s Thomas Jefferson (a quick study here) and his wife (sweet Andrea Prestinario). Among the uncommon men, common ones like the Courier (Zachary Kennedy), Leather Apron (Griffith Whitehurst), and Custodian Andrew McNair (Steve Hendrickson) acquit themselves well with a commoners‘ song, “Momma, Look Sharp.“ As southern slave-owner Edmund Rutledge, powerful Jarrod Zimmerman owns the showstopping “Molasses to Rum“ (outshining his Henry Higgins portrayal for Asolo last year). The song brings out the racism that penetrated all regions of the Colonies. For suspense, you wonder just how and when Don Walker’s likeable Dr. Lyman Hall, Cliff Roles‘ notable-for-being-neutral Lewis Morris, Daniel Schwab’s subordinate delegate from the Carolinas, Bernard Balbot’s  stalwart  James Wilson will change their votes. All along you can admire in their parts John B. Leen’s, Ashley Richards‘, Paul Crane’s, John Jernigan’s, Jeff Parker‘s and David Lively‘s stick-to-it-ness, a few from the very start; some, of course, abandoning it at the end.
Director Frank Galati has revealed the pertinence of the play and its action to today. He’s also coaxed the best to come out of every actor to reveal the defining traits of each character.  Not a slip in any, particularly in interpretation of their dialogue and consistency of accent and tone.  “1776“ is a musical play in which the words are of utmost importance.  No one, not even Musical Director Michael Rice, forgets that for an instant, though his eight musicians sound like a much fuller orchestra. Thanks to Kevin Kennedy, everything can be heard, through visually unobtrusive mics and a sound design that does not overwhelm but clearly brings out dialogue and lyrics. You get to ponder what they say as well as enjoy how they’re delivered.

Asolo Rep via its Artistic Director Michael Douglas Edwards is embarking on a multi-year exploration of The American Character, which “1776” launches full-sail. Its final curtain is a meticulous, magnificent reproduction of the Declaration of Independence---an artisanal masterpiece replicating a rhetorical one.  I’ve heard comments to the effect that Asolo Rep’s “1776” is as good as Broadway’s  original was, also that it ought to go on tour. My feeling is that Asolo’s is incomparable.  As for touring, risks are mighty for a unique production. What I’d rather muse on is something like what a Las Vegas hotel has built to hold its version of “Phantom of the Opera”---a replica (faithful if scaled down) of the Palais Garnier in fin de siecle Paris. Imagine having Asolo Rep’s 1776 Pennsylvania State House anteroom and main chamber of Philadelphia with space for John Adams’ personal perusings and exchanges with Abigail---all in a unique environment. Perhaps a political one that tourists visit. Until, unless such a miracle can happen, the event occuring in Sarasota deserves to attract both dramatic and historical pilgrimages.

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