Bank Street Players is running possibly the most “American” musical ever, this weekend only, at the Princess Theatre in Decatur–the Tony Award-winning 1776. Perfectly timed for the Independence Day weekend, it’s a wonderful reminder of the awe-inspiring act that we’re celebrating on Monday, and should not be missed.
The concept for this 47-year-old play seems like there is no way that it could work–a musical about the politicking leading up to the signing of our Declaration of Independence. Such dry subject matter. But it absolutely does work. The script and libretto are light-hearted and fun, while still getting across the struggles our Founding Fathers had with this momentous decision. This script provides plenty of laughs and great songs, while still reminding us that the Signers were not demigods, but men, with every-day problems to which we can still relate. We watch as a nasty, divided Congress debates and compromises its way toward that fateful step of declaring independence. We sometimes forget that this was not an easy decision for them, and this play shows us the process, warts and all. The script is not 100% historically accurate (anyone curious, can see the list of artistic licenses at this link), but it still does a great job of giving us a little taste of what it must have been like in Philadelphia 240 years ago. While very different in musical styles, 1776 would be an immediate historical prequel to the current Broadway phenomenon, Hamilton, and one imagines a day when both can be used together to teach some national history to our school kids. For Americans, there is probably not a better way to ring in Independence Day weekend, than with a production of 1776.
This Bank Street Players production is stellar. The cast is a wonderful ensemble, with beautiful singing voices, and the director, Susan Godwin Thompson, has done a wonderful job of pulling everything together. The staging of the play is nigh-perfect. While the stage layout doesn’t allow for the traditional closing image that matches the famous John Trumbull painting, there is absolutely nothing wrong with the final tableau of this show–it was just a different choice. The blocking and choreography is generally quite well done, and the “Cool, Cool Considerate Men” number, late in Act I, is a marvelous bit of staging. Bottom line, Thompson managed to get all the pieces in place to provide something to touch every heart. Wanda Thompson, as the musical director, has done a masterful job of helping to select, and then coaching, the members of this cast. It can be a special challenge, singing along to recorded music, because there are no allowances for flubbed lines or missed cues, but this cast makes it look easy.
David Giambrone is perfect as the lead character, “John Adams”, the future second President. While Adams wasn’t actually the annoying pain that this script makes him out to be, Giambrone does a marvelous job of portraying a man who stands so firm on his principles that everyone admires him, even as he’s driving them up the wall. It doesn’t hurt at all that he has a beautiful, commanding singing voice. Chuck Puckett has a lot of fun with the most entertaining character of the Revolution, “Benjamin Franklin”, and provides a wonderful portrayal of a man with a huge zest for life, but the wisdom to accomplish what needs doing. Chuck Thompson gives us a wonderful characterization of the taciturn author of the document, “Thomas Jefferson”, and future third President. That trio of actors singing “The Egg” at the top of Act II, is one of the highlights. Jonathan Schuster, as “John Dickinson”, the leader of the men of property more concerned about their own financial welfare than that of the country, is simply great. His “cool, cool” supercilious nature, provides a perfect counterpoint to Adams and Franklin. Gary Mckenzie, as “Edward Rutledge”, the representative of the slave-owners, does a fine job with one of the more uncomfortable portions of the play, as we are reminded that politics is, and always has been, a dirty business. And let’s not forget the two women in the cast. Whitney Miles, as John Adams’ wife, Abigail, is incredible. The emotions portrayed during her letter-writing sequences with John, are almost matched by the glimpse of the strength of will and intelligence the “Founding Mothers” must have had. Courtney Turner, as “Martha Jefferson”, has wonderful poise, and quickly becomes everyone’s darling, during her brief time onstage with Franklin and Adams. There are simply too many characters to list all the great work done by this ensemble, but Cline Thompson (as the cocky “Richard Henry Lee”), David Hill (as the long-suffering Congressional clerk, “McNair”), and David Quinn (as the Army courier, with a heart-stabbing glimpse of life on the front lines), are all stand-outs.
The set is relatively simple, with mere spaced window units (in order to let out the Philadelphia heat and let in the flies), and a couple platforms. That said, the stage is so crowded with the necessary chairs, that one really doesn’t miss having a complete upstage wall. The rolling platforms for the scenes taking place elsewhere, and the final Declaration scrim drop, are perfect for their purposes. The lighting design, by Penny Linville, makes a nice effort of trying to portray some various times of day and night, and defining special locations onstage. Keith Spivey, on the sound board, managed to balance the various microphones fairly well. One does hope that a better placement location is found for Martha Jefferson’s microphone lead, however, as plastering it all over her cheek made for the only distracting mic in the production. Claire Crane, as the finger on the button of the recorded music, has the timing down perfectly, and there rarely seemed to be a moment of musical discomfort onstage. The costumes are flat-out awesome. One can only assume that these have been sitting in storage, because it seems highly unlikely that such a small costume crew (Caroline Godwin, Heather Gillikin, and Paulette Morgan) made these from scratch. Still, the tailoring and fit for all 26 costumes looked just right. Combine the wonderful costumes with Ginger Vandiver’s wigs, and the period “look” of the the entire ensemble is wonderful.
Bottom line, folks, I would not miss this show if you are an American. There aren’t too many other countries with a musical about the moment their nation came into existence, and this is a good one–both the moment and the musical. The show closes tomorrow evening (Saturday), so don’t delay. Ticket prices and show times can be found at this link.
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