October 19, 1999
A Review by Pat and Ernie Pinson
The Joe Jefferson Players breathed new life into a revival of the musical, 1776, on opening night, Thursday, Oct. 8. As Tom Gray said in his Director's Notes, it is tricky business to bring back a highly successful play written for a special historic occasion. On the one hand, it is dated -- and on the other, how can you compete with memories of past glory? But he staunchly strode ahead -- like many of the patriots he cast on-stage -- and created a glorious evening.
Casting a play with 25 men and 2 women who also have to sing must be a real director's dilemma. But with a bright, witty script, and the motley crew of characters who were so cleverly drawn -- the task blossomed into some real cameos. And besides, who could pass up such a chance to show Congress in its usual torpid inability to act decisively. ("God, Sir, get Thee to it, for Congress never will.") This was a real post-modern fling, putting the past in a modern frame of issues, innuendoes, and inconsistencies.
Costumes were especially good -- some very Commonwealth, and some very common -- landowners, farmers, merchants, clergymen, even an inveterate drinker of rum -- you could often tell the party by the wig. Jenny Bandy and Terry Smith had to be pretty creative, and they were.
There were several especially captivating performances - David Briggs brought the delightfully arrogant Richard Henry Lee of Virginia alive when asked to help bring around a vote in the deadlocked house ("Naturalee!"). Rick Miller carried off Col. Thomas McKean's Scottish brogue and fiery nature with great aplomb, and Brad Byrne who played Rutledge from South Carolina changed from disdainful dandy into an fiery, passionate defender of slavery in "Molasses to Rum." Ty Broadnax turned the long-suffering Mr. McNair into a sympathetic, humorous custodian who knew more about Congress than the men in it.
But the greatest surprise came when Blake Curtis as the hot and tired Courier (who didn't have a line all through Act 1) closed the act with the poignant song "Mama, Look Sharp." His clear youthful voice changed the focus of the whole play from the petty bickering and political dances of Philadelphia to the dangerous reality of the Revolutionary War. What a riveting moment -- and he handled it well.
The three ring leaders, Adams, Franklin, and Jefferson were an unlikely trio who believed in the same thing but approached the issues from different points altogether. Chris Smith as John Adams was a bit over zealous and over played at the beginning but settled into the part; Jim Faust as a youthful Jefferson didn't even take part until well into the play (he was reading a book); and Romy Vistart looked and played well the gouty old Franklin who provided a healthy dose of diplomacy but with an appreciation of the ladies and a good glass of spirits.
Other notable moments included a dance scene -- conservatives dancing the restrained minuet together ("always to the right and never to the left") which was effective mirroring the motions and counter motions of the group -- and the sung letters of Abigail and John Adams. Several interesting leitmotifs also wove throughout the play -- John Hancock's recurring request to open the window to get some air, ("Go on gentlemen, you're making the only breeze in Philadelphia"), and General Washington's numerous complaining/weary dispatches.
The strength of this musical lies in the character portrayals of individual men of the Congress beset with their weaknesses and foibles -- the fence sitters, the leaders, the followers, the vested interests. A rather sobering follow-up on the fate of these Declaration of Independence signers was available in the foyer after the play. Fourteen of them died from torture or in battle; others died of exhaustion from losing their own liberty and their families; and many lost their lands and later died in poverty. They were hounded, branded as traitors, and treated as radicals, yet, they were the educated, elite, common Congressmen who were able to rise out of self interests to greatness when necessary.
This play runs through October 23 -- go see it. It's well worth it.