1776 – A Revolutionary Musical

Hannah McMurray photo: fran ruchalski

The drama department of Stanton Prep presented three public performances October 22 to 24, of the Tony Award Winning Musical 1776 by Sherman Edwards and Peter Stone.
The last previous performance of this l969 musical was at the Alhambra Dinner Theatre several years ago. It was a very timely production for our country is once again at a time when we yearn for firm values and immutable beliefs from our government and look to recapture the age when as a country we were mighty, true and pure. The very serious question of independence was brought to life in a fascinating civics lesson and truly entertaining show.
This is the story about America’s first Continental Congress. The delegates battle the English and each other trying to establish a set of laws and the Declaration of Independence. If you missed this production and are interested you can probably find the very excellent l972 film version at the library.
The fiery John Adams from Massachusetts (played excellently by Jake Harrelson), is the strongest advocate for independence but he is pushy, obnoxious and disliked. The tide begins to turn when the Virginia delegate Richard Henry Lee (tunefully depicted by Daniel Hanson) gives his support along with fellow Virginian Thomas Jefferson (Taylor Smith). Jefferson, of course, is the man who actually wrote the original Declaration.
There were disagreements about almost every word from the various delegates. I guess government has not changed much today. Just check out the bickering about the proposed health plans currently being mulled over.
Pennsylvania is very cautious, with the very smart but comical Benjamin Franklin (Christopher Valade) very much at odds with the bombastic John Dickenson (Alex Johnson) and the rather timid third delegate James Wilson (Tiernan Middleton) caught in the middle of the two. Delaware’s trio Caesar Rodney (William Baxley), Col. Thomas McKean (Nick Jones) and George Read (Darian Shump), tend to side with Pennsylvania.
Because of slavery clause in the first draft, South Carolina, Edward Rutledge (Joseph Bolling) and North Carolina Joseph Hewes (Garrett White), oppose independence but later come aboard when Jefferson agrees to remove the offending statements. Georgia’s Dr. Lyman Hall (Austen Weitzel) wants to vote the will of his constitutes but in his heart he, personally, is for severing ties with King George and England.
The other state delegates all have their moments to express their opinions and display the unique personalities that made up this very interesting Congress. The other states present included New Hampshire-Dr. Josiah Barlett (Daniel Fischer), Rhode Island-Stephen Hopkins (Nathan Dennis), Connecticut-Roger Sherman (Jake Higdon), New York-Lewis Morris(David Keister), Robert Livingston(Danny Ford), New Jersey-Rev. Jonathan Witherspoon (Will Gruber).Maryland-Samuel Chase (Alexander Farabee) .
John Hancock, the President of the Congress, and the first one to sign the Declaration with his now famous large signature was played by Jerry Kivett. Paul Cancel was Charles Thomson, the Secretary to the Congress, with Allan McLelland and Bo Phelan completing the as custodians, whose main job was to keep the mugs of rum filled and provide fly swatters to the delegates.
Corey Canche was a courier who brought dispatched in about the progress of the war from General George Washington. Mr. Canche also sang one of the more moving songs in the show, “Momma Look Sharp.” Derrick Routier did a cameo role as a painter.
There were only two women in the show but they were an impressive addition by the playwright. Both ladies were dressed in elegant gowns in appearances with their husbands. Amelia Strickland, as Abigail Adams, join husband John, in two duets, “Till Then” and “Yours, Yours, Yours. Weezie Phelan as Jefferson’s wife “Martha” sang the interesting song “Compliments “in Act II. Both of these talented ladies sang well and were, of course, lovely to look at.
The Musical Director Ellen Milligan, was on the piano accompanied by Tony Steve on percussion, Felix Chang playing violin, and Nick Chanson on trumpet. Ms. Milligan also choreographed assisted by Shannon Smith and Jenn Walls. Technical direction by Jessica Besecker, a daunting task since the performing area is essentially a large multipurpose room with no permanent chairs. The acoustics were surprisingly good considering the high ceiling.
The two gowns and the men’s costumes were rented. I don’t know of any community theatre or high school that has a budget large enough to actually make the costumes for this show. Tracy Olin from Theatre Jacksonville and the local costume guru, coordinated all the wigs and outfits, and they were quite colorful and very authentic.
There were only fourteen songs in the show, and four of them were sung in the first 15 minutes of this 2 hour show. Most were funny and quite well done by all the singers involved.
The show was directed by Jeff Grove, Cheryl McCane and Shirley Sacks, and it was obvious there was a lot of rehearsal involved. The actors used various accents (Scottish, Southern, etc), and with the various volume levels used, the show was very interesting to HEAR as well as SEE.
I hope this show turns up again. It is certainly one all students should see at some stage in their education. History can be fun, and 1776 is proof of that and still the message about the struggle to create the United States of America comes through loud and clear.
Stanton’s future theatre productions will certainly be on my future agendas. My first experience with Stanton’s program was the Jeff Grove/Shirley Sacks directed Urinetown. Since then I also saw this year’s unique production of The Tempest