The founding fathers are looking spry and lively at Toby’s Dinner Theatre in Columbia right now as they once again fight for independence in the musical 1776. It’s a masterpiece, I say, and I cheered every word and every letter. I hope you will feel that way, too.
1776 is something of a favorite of mine, a ground zero of sorts. Many years ago as a high school student, I came across a hardback, book club edition of the script in a used book store. It was 1982, and I was a sophomore in high school. I was a big history buff but had not yet been bitten by the theatre bug. I read and re-read that book, Peter Stone’s version of the monumental events of 1776, which humanized those patriots and put songs in their mouths. From the Original Broadway Cast recording, I heard how Sherman Edwards created songs that crossed a line between Broadway and folk and crackled with fife, drum and harpsichord – a perfect musical setting for the 18th century. I was hooked. I was floored. And a theatre lover was born.
Now, you and I and anyone else with a few hours to spare can partake of the full experience of Stone’s masterful book and Edwards’ short but oh so sweet score. The co-director and choreographer team of Jeremy Scott Blaustein and Shawn Kettering have assembled a continental congress of performers who are more than up to the task of bringing to life the events and debates leading up to the birth of our fledgling nation.
Leading the cast as the obnoxious and disliked agitator John Adams, Jeffrey Shankle finds a way to bring charm to the upstart congressman from Massachusetts. Shankle easily conveys Adams fierce determination as well as his softer side, especially in his brief scenes with his faraway wife Abigail – a strong performance by Santina Maiolatesi. Shankle’s strong baritone voice is shown to great advantage throughout the show, especially in Adams’ 11 o’clock number, “Is Anybody There?”
Shankle’s partner in treason, so to speak, is John Stevenson as Benjamin Franklin, the witty, old sage with a penchant for quoting his own maxims. Stevenson’s Franklin offers the sometimes wicked and often reasonable counterpoint to the firebrand Adams, and their singing voices complement each other – Shankle’s ringing trumpet to Stevenson’s smooth cello-like tones.
As the gentleman from Virginia, the young, handsome and brilliant Thomas Jefferson, Brendan McMahon looked as if he could have a career as a Jefferson reenactor. His tall, thin frame and features were the spitting image of the young multi-tasker and chief author of the Declaration of Independence. The actor’s portrayal of the quiet and reserved Jefferson added further to the trifecta of patriotic fervor brought forth along with Franklin and Adams.
Representing the status quo and opposition to American independence is John Dickinson from Pennsylvania, memorably played by Darren McDonnell as a tightly-wound, man of property who will stop at nothing to preserve his status and British rule of the colonies. McDonnell’s scenes going head-to-head with Shankle during the heated debates between Dickinson and Adams demonstrate the often volatile atmosphere during that hot July in Philly so many years ago.
Other thorns in the side of Adams and company include the dandy, Southern gentlemen from the Carolinas – Will Emory as the deferential Joseph Hewes of North Carolina, who allows the even dandier and haughty Edward Rutledge to lead the pro-slavery faction. Rutledge, by my estimation, is actually the more formidable foe to the full independence for all citizens sought by the others. Within Peter Stone’s brilliantly written book for 1776, the dramatic tension comes to a head when Rutledge holds independence in the balance by threatening to keep the slave-owning colonies in the “nay” column on the vote for independence.
Musically, Sherman Edwards’ quirky score also hands Rutledge one of the most powerful songs – hell, call it an aria! – among the musical numbers, “Molasses to Rum,” which pointedly reveals the hypocrisy of New England’s objections to slavery since they are the primary shipbuilders and owners of the shipping lines which bring the “black gold” from Africa. Dan Felton performs Rutledge oozing with double-edged Southern charm and a magnificent singing voice that delivers the chill-factor during “Molasses to Rum.”
“And for the support of this declaration, [with a firm reliance on the protection of divine providence] we mutually pledge to each other our lives, our fortunes, & our sacred honor.” – closing lines of the Declaration of Independence adopted by the General Assembly (Continental Congress) that summer of 1776.
1776’s most poignant song is sung by the courier from General Washington. As the Continental Congress proceeds, intermittent dispatches from the front are delivered by a nearly silent messenger, here played by Matthew Hirsh. When congressional custodian Andrew McNair (a wily David James) invites the courier to sit, he asks the boy what it is like on the front lines. The answer is the heartbreaking “Momma, Look Sharp,” a folky tearjerker about dying soldiers looking for their mothers amidst gunfire and death. Hirsh rendered the song with a glorious tenor voice, a searing performance of the wounded soul of a boy who had seen enough death for twenty men.
April 23 – July 5, 2015
Toby’s Dinner Theatre
5900 Symphony Woods Road
Show time: 2 hours, 15 minutes with 1 dessert break
Tuesdays thru Sundays
Tickets: $53 – $58
Tickets or call 1800-88-TOBYS
Among the sizable ensemble cast, audiences can spot Lawrence B. Munsey as congressional leader John Hancock, Robert John Biedermann 125 as the salty Stephen Hopkins from Rhode Island, and David Bosley-Reynolds as the Scotsman Thomas McKean from Delaware. Co-director Jeremy Scott Blaustein, as the flamboyant and randy Richard Henry Lee, near-Lee stole his brief but memorable scenes.
The two wives also make memorable contributions. John Adams longs for his dear Abigail, played with an homespun earthiness by Santina Maiolatesi. As Jefferson’s young and passionate bride, Martha, MaryKate Broulliet brought loveliness and a strong singing voice to her brief visit to her love-sick Thomas.
As is standard practice at Toby’s, 1776 is performed in the round, the entire theatre is transformed into the congressional chambers and parts of Philadelphia by set designer David A. Hopkins and lighting designer Coleen M. Foley. The sumptuous period costumes – powdered wigs, brocade jackets, buckle shoes – were provided by A.T. Jones and Sons, coordinated by Lawrence Munsey.
I suggest you order tickets now to 1776 at Toby’s, individual patrons, bus groups and the like will likely clamor to relive the summer of our country’s founding. The show runs until – you guessed it – July 5. I may have to go back for Independence Day, but I will wager it’s already sold out.
1776 . Book by Peter Stone . Music and Lyrics by Sherman Edwards . Directed and Choreographed by Jeremy Scott Blaustein and Shawn Kettering . Featuring Lawrence B. Munsey, R.J. Pavel, Jeffrey Shankle, Robert John Biederman 125, Chris Rudy, B. Thomas, Rinaldi, Ben Lurye, Ariel Messeca, John Stevenson, Darren McDonnell, Scott Harrison, Dave Guy, David Bosley-Reynolds, Thomas Stratton, Andrew Horn, Jeremy Scott Blaustein, Brendan McMahon, Will Emory, Dan Felton, Justin Calhoun, Russell Silber, David James, A.J. Whittenberger, Santina Maiolatesi, MaryKate Broulliet, Matthew Hirsh . Musical Director: Douglas Lawler . Set Design: David A. Hopkins . Sound Design: Mark Smedley . Lighting Design: Coleen M. Foley . Costume Coordinator: Lawrence B. Munsey . Stage Manager: Cree Menefee and Kate Wackerle . Produced by Toby’s Columbia . Reviewed by Jeffrey Walker.