A successful musical reflects the synergy of performers, designers, musicians and others who collaborate in the service of the director’s vision. The desired effect can be enhanced or spoiled by a single component.
House lights dim. With a flash of baton, we’re off to the races. The tempo of the opening (not exactly an overture) is too sluggish for me. A loud metallic toot from the brass section veers off course. It’s an ominous beginning. Despite sporadic bursts of brilliance onstage, there are too many flaws in the production.
“1776” is one of my favorite musicals. Book writer Peter Stone and lyricist/composer, Sherman Edwards, have extensive backgrounds in history. Their libretto is sprinkled with direct quotations from original sources. The real John Adams did, in fact, describe himself as “obnoxious and disliked”.
Martin Fox plays the lead: John Adams, the most passionate champion of American Independence and, according to his wife, Abigail, “the man who is always first in line to be hanged.” Fox captures the statesman’s dual personality: sanctimonious in public, vulnerable in private. It’s a challenging role. The authors provide Adams with occasional moments of self-mockery to mitigate the character’s intensity. Fox has difficulty switching gears.
In a “Historical Note by the Authors,” Edwards and Stone justify their use of artistic license. For dramatic effect, they reshuffle some historical events and permit a handful of anachronisms. They create composite characters. There are other artistic tweaks but none “has done anything to alter the historical truth of the characters, the times or the events of American independence.”
The play depicts the struggles leading up to ratification of the Declaration of Independence. Disputes abound in the Second Continental Congress. In the first number, “Sit Down, John,” the delegates can’t even agree on whether to keep the windows open or shut. The heat in Philadelphia is sweltering, but swarms of horseflies buzz outside the windows. It’s a no-win situation for these representatives of the 13 American colonies.
Each delegate has his own priorities, each region its own peculiarities. Obstinate members posture and preen. Ideologies clash and tempers flare. Sound familiar? At times, fist-fights seem imminent. It’s a wonder anything gets accomplished.
What drives the plot is the question of whether the Declaration of Independence will be ratified by all 13 colonies. No spoiler alert is necessary, yet the authors manage to create suspense throughout the play. That is its genius. The issue of American Independence is hotly debated by the delegates. There is no shortage of character-driven conflict. History has provided an abundance of riches.
With bawdy banter, vivid characters, and gossipy overtones, the play shakes the dust off the text books. It’s a delight! When Adams frets about his image, Ben Franklin (Tom Murray), quips, “Don’t worry, John. The history books will clean it up.” Franklin and Adams unite with Thomas Jefferson (Peter Meredith), staunch advocate of Independence.
Meredith is pleasant enough, but miscast. In the book, his character is described as 6’3”. Indeed, Thomas Jefferson was extremely tall and slender. In the play, during a crucial exchange, there’s a sight gag based on the height differential between Jefferson and Adams. Meredith is short. The joke not only bombs, it makes no sense.
Furthermore, as the author of the Declaration of Independence, Jefferson is a monumental character. He is a commanding presence at the Continental Congress. Meredith seems to fade into the background.
While Congress deliberates, the Revolutionary War pushes across the American landscape. The Redcoats are well trained. According to a series of dispatches from General George Washington, the prospects are gloomy.
These sobering dispatches are read aloud during Congressional sessions by the Secretary (Kent Coffel). With crisp enunciation and subdued force, Coffel delivers the most polished performance by far. Whenever he speaks, the audience is hushed. His consistency as an actor is re-assuring alongside the spotty performances of others.
The musical numbers are well-paced. Three standouts are “Mama, Look Sharp”, “Cool, Cool Considerate Men” and “Molasses to Rum”, the last, a Southerner’s indictment of New England’s role in the Triangle Trade, procuring slaves for plantation use. It is a horrifying scene.
The show tends to drag during protracted Congressional sessions. Director Maggie Ryan is responsible for pacing. Admittedly, the book is talky. It contains an unusually big chunk of dialogue (lasting over 30 minutes) without song or dance. Congressional discourse affords little action. During debates, most delegates remain seated at tables unless they have the floor.
It is during one of those scenes that I notice the exceptionally beautiful back lighting (Maureen Berry). Lighting effects change subtly to reflect mood. Elegant teal blue back lighting picks up the color of Martha Jefferson’s dress in the number, “He Plays the Violin”.
The quality and fit of costumes (Laura Hanson) and wigs is disturbingly inconsistent. Impeccably fitted jackets and waistcoats draw my attention to delegates out of the limelight, while Adams, front and center, sports a baggy velvet-ish jacket that keeps shifting off his shoulders. It’s distracting. Wigs run the gamut from beautifully coiffed to Halloween leftovers.
There is a courier (Charlie Ingram) who carries dispatches from the battlefield. His character had witnessed the death of two friends shot on the village green at Lexington. “An’ when they didn’t come home f’r supper, their mamas went down the hill, lookin’ for ‘em.” Ingram sings “Mama, Look Sharp” and his voice is absolutely gorgeous.
“1776” runs through July 7, 2013 at Nerinx Hall, located at 530 East Lockwood, 63119. For more information: 314-556-1293.
NOTE: A charming film adaptation of “1776” is available in DVD. Bonus material in the Director’s Cut includes a fascinating commentary by director Peter Hunt, and book/screen writer, Peter Stone.