Music and lyrics by Sherwin Edwards; book by Peter Stone
Adapted from the journals of Charles Thomson and the letters of John and Abigail Adams
Produced by Keegan Theatre
Reviewed by Tim Treanor
Keegan’s 1776 is a pleasant and fitfully excellent production which renders about 60% of the brilliant Stone-Edwards musical’s wattage. This is Keegan’s first venture into musical theater in several years and 1776 is a good choice for the task: it has little choreography and the music, while clever and inventive, is by and large not difficult. Curiously, Keegan masters the music (especially the choral music) but fails to bring the dynamics of America staggering toward independence to life.
In 1776, the monomaniacal John Adams (Mick Tinder) is a yapping Yorkshire terrier of independence, who has managed to alienate even his fellow advocates with his shrill posturing. When shrewd Ben Franklin (Robert Leembruggen) maneuvers another delegate, Richard Lee (Doug Wilder) to front for the cause, the logjam begins to break. In order to buy time and shore up votes, the pro-independence forces commission Thomas Jefferson (James Finley) to draft up a formal Declaration. Jefferson, who pines after his long-absent wife, Martha (Carolyn Agan), pretty much makes a hash of his charge until Adams hits on the idea of bringing Martha to Philadelphia to quash the Great Man’s resentment, and reignite his muse. This seems like an uncharacteristic insight for the straight-laced Adams, but in fact he, too, misses his wife Abigail (Patricia Tinder) beyond measure. Jefferson completes his task, and after exhaustive debate and numerous amendments – most of them trivial but one of them, the removal of the section condemnatory of slavery, heartbreaking – we have the Declaration of Independence every schoolchild knows by heart (just kidding).
This dry recitation of 1776’s plot has left out the story’s rich humor, gripping suspense, high drama and poignancy. Regrettably, Keegan’s production mostly leaves these things out, too. The immense cast, gathered in Congress, seems soggy, somehow, as though the characters were not listening to each other but only waiting for their turn to speak. (Of course, this is also how the real Congress sounds, but this is one instance where art must improve on life. Have you checked on Congress’ box office, lately?) The supporting cast is frequently unhelpful. For example, the factotum McNair (Colin Smith, who did a good job), caught up in the objections to the Declaration, offers his own opinion on what the new country should be called. It’s a funny line if Presiding Officer John Hancock (Todd Baldwin) reacts with fury, or amusement, or even exasperation, but Baldwin treats it as just another motion to be disposed of as quickly as possible, and no laughs result.
This is a play with two protagonists, Adams and Franklin, and two antagonists. One is the Anglophile John Dickinson of Pennsylvania (Kevin Adams), committed to maintaining England’s control over her American colonies, and the other is Edward Rutledge of South Carolina (Dave Jourdan), whose dark agenda is indifferent to independence but hypersensitive to any effort to curtail slavery.
Keegan is well served by its choice of protagonists. Tinder as Adams has a high thin voice and a nearly operatic set of ticks and gestures. At first I was a little annoyed until I realized – I was supposed to be annoyed; Adams’ salient characteristic is that he annoys others, is “obnoxious and disliked”, as one song suggests. As the play wears on, Tinder tones down these effects. He had made his point about Adams’ character, and we are free to appreciate the finer aspects of the man who became our second President.
Leembruggen is not much of a singer – nor does the role require much song from him – but he gives us a wonderfully layered, textured Ben Franklin. It is swell to watch the work of an actor who has so thoroughly researched his character, down to signing the Declaration left-handed, as Franklin did. (Director Mark Rhea and dramaturg Trudi Olivetti presumably share some credit for this). Singing the last chorus of “He Plays the Violin” as Martha Jefferson disappears into her lodgings in the arms of her husband, Leembruggen does an interesting thing: for a bar or two, his voice takes on a great poignant sadness, as though wise old Ben Franklin knew that Martha’s hourglass was running out, and that in a little more than six years this vibrant young woman would be dead.
The antagonists are not quite as successful. Kevin Adams is a fine actor, but he does not appear to have the vocal chops for the role of Dickinson. He is consistently off-key with his big number “Cool, Cool Considerate Men”. As for Jourdan, he acquits himself well with his signature number, the difficult Molasses to Rum, which explodes Northern hypocrisy on slavery. Unfortunately, he fails to establish himself as the sort of character who would sing “Molasses to Rum”. Rutledge must be a terrifying character, aggressive, malicious and brilliant. When he rises towards the end of the debate on the Declaration, Franklin says “Watch out” and when he does so we must understand why. Up to that point, though, Jourdan’s Rutledge has been an amiable fellow, given to broad smiling and soft words, and we do not feel the shiver of anticipation which Franklin does when he rises to speak.
There are other instances in which Keegan misses opportunities for drama. Costumed actors congregate in the lobby before the show and during intermission, chatting with each other and with audience members they know. The tiny Church Street dressing rooms are doubtlessly inadequate for this large cast, but it is a dreadful penetration of the fourth wall to let such a thing go on, and it is hard to imagine that the fellow who stood next to you a few minutes ago in the lobby, nibbling on a Mentholyptus, is about to enter Congress and determine whether America will be independent. Much of the music was a mix of live and recorded synthesizer, which gives many of the songs a tinny sound. (Watch for Joel’s Schmooze column next week for more details.)
These rheums and complaints, however, should not blind us to the production’s many admirable qualities: the work of Leembruggen and Mick Tinder and of the production’s two women, Agan and Patricia Tinder, and especially of James Finley as Thomas Jefferson. Finley has a beautiful voice, and seems to capture his awkward, brilliant subject perfectly. Better still is the wonderful book and score; and better even than that is the event it celebrates, which is our story, which is us.
(Approximate running time: 2:40) 1776 continues Thursdays through Sundays at the Church Street Theater, 1742 Church Street NW, until July 1. Sunday shows are at 2 p.m.; all other shows are at 8 p.m. There will be an additional Saturday 2 p.m. matinee on June 23, and no show on June 24. General admission tickets are $30; you may get them at 703.892.0202 or online.