Chicago Theatre Review
Breathing Life Into History
1776 – E.D.G.E Theatre
In 1969 a musical that, at the time, was considered daring and groundbreaking, told the story of the hot, summer days leading up to the drafting and signing of our Declaration of Independence. It could be compared to today’s “Hamilton,” in the way it presents our country’s founding fathers as real, flesh and blood people, not as simply names from a history book. The show opened on Broadway and ran for more than 1,200 performances, taking home the Tony Award that year for, among other categories, Best Musical. Three years later, the musical become a film, with most of the original cast reprising their roles on the silver screen. The show enjoyed an eagerly awaited remount by the Roundabout Theatre Company, which earned it the 1998 Drama Desk Award for Best Revival of a Musical.
In spite of the fact that everyone knows how the play will end, this musical surprises with its humor, unexpected tension and suspense, as John Adams, Benjamin Franklin and their allies attempt to persuade all 13 colonies to vote for independency. The dramatic construction of this play, by librettist Peter Stone, is enhanced and given an almost playful, irreverent tone by Sherman Edwards’ music and lyrics.
The composer’s songs help breathe life into the characters and add an element of whimsy (“Cool, Cool Considerate Men,” “Sit Down, John”). Sometimes his songs offer insight into their marital relationships (“Yours, Yours, Yours,” “He Plays the Violin”), while others, such as “The Egg,” succinctly depicts the tension felt by Jefferson, Franklin and Adams as they nervously await Congress’ response to their Declaration of Independence. To break the suspense, the trio musically debate which bird should represent this new nation.
But Edwards has composed a couple of other songs that touch the heart and add even more drama to the events of that summer in Philadelphia. “Mama, Look Sharp,” sung by a young, ragged Courier delivering missives from General Washington, is one of the most beautiful songs in this show. “Molasses to Rum,” Edward Rutledge’s moving condemnation of the northern colonies’ role in the slave trade is, without question, the dramatic highlight of this score. And “Is Anybody There?,” John Adams’ musical soliloquy near the end of the play, brings all the events of this musical to a head. It’s in this moment that the audience fully appreciates this patriot as a man whose love of country feels like a thankless, lonely effort.
This unique theatre company, whose mission is proclaimed through their acronym, Esteem Development Through Great Expectations, presents an inclusive production that’s directed by company member, Melissa Crabtree. She’s cast two dozen actor/singers to bring life to this chapter of our country’s history. While this production remains true to the original, it should be noted that this is, in fact, a modern-day adaptation.
First, the second floor bar and cabaret known as Mary’s Attic (upstairs from Hamburger Mary’s) has been subtly transformed into Independence Hall. There are video screen calendars to convey the passage of time; a cell phone is used to send messages and to capture Franklin’s portrait, although an old-fashioned tally board reminds everyone how a colony’s voted on each motion. Other than that, the set consists only of a handful of small tables and chairs. The actors sit among the audience, as if we’re all members of the First Continental Congress.
Next, the cast is comprised of actors of both genders, which is very different from the Broadway version. The original production featured only men, except in the roles of Mrs. Adams and Mrs. Jefferson. This inclusion of female delegates (playing male roles, as men) offers some variety to the look and sound of the musical, while offering a number of actresses some very juicy roles. Third, the show is contemporarily costumed in modern-day suits and dresses. A special touch is found in Scottish delegate Thomas McKean’s kilt ensemble.
Terry McEnroe is excellent in the demanding role of John Adams. The actor has a commanding presence, a beautifully resonant voice and, when he’s not stumbling over some of his lines, is a most convincing Mr. Adams. A favorite Chicago actor, the talented Edward Kuffert is both wise and waggish as humorous and worldly Benjamin Franklin. These two actors make a believable team as they lecture, bargain and cajole the other delegates toward independence. Although he resembles Mr. McEnroe a bit, Jack Wright is terrific as Thomas Jefferson. Instead of being a red-head he’s a hairless man of letters, intellectual prowess and modest authority. Adam Hoak is most impressive as Pennsylvania’s John Dickinson, Adams’ adversary in this fictional account. Other standouts in this production include David Feiler as John Hancock, Garrett Anderson as Rev. John Witherspoon and Peter Ruger as the high-spirited, optimistic Richard Henry Lee.
Melissa Paris is pure perfection as Abigail Adams, and her appearances through the musical via the couple’s correspondences are always eagerly anticipated. She remains, in fact, one of the strongest females in this cast. The others who impress include Sydney Ray as authoritative secretary of the Congress, Charles Thomson; Alexandra T. Cross as an uncompromising Edward Rutledge; and Ilana Goldstein as finely outlined Roger Sherman. Laura Jewell, as the Courier, does a nice job with her sadly poignant song, although she rushes her dialogue to the point that she’s almost unintelligible.
It must be noted that this is a very long show from an era when a musical comprised a full evening of entertainment. Here it’s made to feel even longer by presenting it without an intermission. Given that most theatergoers are imbibing throughout the show, a designated break would alleviate a patron’s need to walk through the scene in order to relieve himself in the dressing room area. Also, since the show requires a long attention span, this may not be the best choice for younger patrons.
This is, however, an admirable production. While staying true to the original it opens up the play with a few modern touches, not the least of which is inclusive, cross-gender casting. The fine three-member instrumental ensemble, tucked into a far corner of the room, nicely accompanies the talented cast with skill and precision. Ms. Crabtree’s naturalistic direction allows her actors the freedom to sit among and interact with the audience throughout the show. While some of the impact of the original is lost in translation, E.D.G.E’s contemporary version of this Tony-winning musical proves why the show remains one of Broadway’s finest attempts to make history come alive.
Reviewed by Colin Douglas
Presented September 1-17 and November 9-11 by E.D.G.E. Theatre at Mary’s Attic, 5400 N. Clark Ave., Chicago.
Tickets are available at www.edgeoforion.com.
Additional information about this and other area productions can be found by visiting www.theatreinchicago.com.