The Company Theatre performs 1776 under the incredible virtuosity of a stacked ensemble of performers. With notable performances by Doug Jabara as the comedic sage Benjamin Franklin, Andrew Giorandio as the passionate aristocrat Edward Rutledge, and Bob DeVivo as the fearless leader John Adams, the Company Theatre's production offers some of the strongest musical theatre work this season, making it a must see production to escape the summer heat.
1776 is a musical, fictionalized account of the events leading to the signing of the Declaration of Independence. John Adams (Bob DeVivo) passionately debates many of his proposals before the Second Continental Congress in Philadelphia, but his opinions fall on deaf ears. His relationship (even if imaginary and existing in an ether) with his wife, Abigail Adams (Stephanie Mann) is heartwarming and endearing, a mature, slow-burn of mutual respect and love. Both DeVivo and Mann shine in their duet, “Till Then,” instilling hope of their future as President and First Lady – who wouldn’t want to see these two performers take on more pressing and immediate material, post-war?
But it’s the second scene and the introduction of Richard Henry Lee (John F. King), Virginia delegate, that gets the plot moving and the rest of the musical sprints along with excellent pacing. Many productions of 1776 would drag with its long exposition and even longer song-less scenes (Scene 3, or the “Big Three” holds the record for the longest time in a musical without a single note played or sung), but not The Company Theatre’s production. Each of the actors was cast not only for his or her vocal talent, but also for his or her ability to create a memorable role for some of these iconic historical characters. King’s Richard Henry Lee is only one of the stand-outs, as he boasts of and luxuriates in his family history and prominence in his “The Lees of Old Virginia.” With a clear and strong voice, King brings down the house early in the performance with this rousing number. You can almost feel the momentum build as the rest of the cast recognizes the energy that inspires from the sluggish Philadelphia summer heat.
From there, we are treated to our first tease of the fine acting among the talented cast as the first vote regarding independence is taken. Each of the delegates stands to give his vote and he is counted among our anecdotes of history; the six “villains” against independence and the six “heroes” for independence. But, under the careful and consideration direction of Zoe Bradford and Jordie Saucerman, each character feels like he is both part of history and making it; even the weaker actors offer enough camp to be memorable and the stronger actors compel strong arguments and feelings for their beliefs.
One of my biggest difficulties with this production was the placement of the Act I break and intermission. The production relies on a strong, endearing finish in the tenor solo, “Momma Look Sharp.” The Courier (Finn Clougherty) is neither compelling enough nor strong enough as a singer to capture this moment for its worth; while the delegates argue over the semantics of a piece of paper, men are risking their lives and seeing their friends die. This song is given additional weight by ending a long Act I, but lacks the technique to fulfill its ambitions. Instead, Scene 5 could be split in half when Adams and Franklin attempt to convince the remaining delegates, giving the production a strong momentum into Act II, and opening with “Cool Conservative Men” as a light but important Act II opener. Instead, opening with “The Egg”, the production seems to have resolved the conflict too quickly while we were enjoying our Intermission, losing some of its momentum and too neatly settling the plot.
“The Egg” provides some of the strongest acting among the production, featuring Jabara’s Franklin, DeVivo’s Adams, and Trey Lundquist’s Thomas Jefferson. The number allows them each to shine with committed and comedic genius. However, Act II is really about the eleven-o’clock show-stopping number by Giordano’s Rutledge in “Molasses to Rum.” Giordano has had the cool, aloof and aristocratic presence throughout the musical, motivating other characters with a flick of his hand, a turn of his shoulder, or a glance of annoyance. Giordano unleashes his objections about the slavery clause in the drafted Declaration of Independence, and he proves to be the musical’s most sympathetic, rational, and charming antagonist. No one above a seventh grade education would deny the historical significance of Rutledge’s outburst and rationality, and no one with a shred of humanity wouldn’t shudder at the impassioned performance delivered by Giordano. The musical number is stirring, but annoying – almost as if the directors did not trust Giordano to perform this song with usual skill, they used distracting lighting and projection effects by Paul Vaillancourt to pull focus from the song. With any less-skilled performer, this directorial decision could have been forgivable, but, with Giordano, the projections prove burdensome.
Despite the overuse of spot-lights and other distracting and amateur lighting effects, the other technical elements flourish and shine in this production. Brianne Plummer’s costumes are not only well-researched but also visually pleasing and distinctly unique; Plummer gives each character enough individual flair to accent his or her personality, along with geographic and cultural heritage. They might be some of this season’s strongest work, emphasizing the ensemble’s tight relationship and core success. Zoe Bradford also creates an extremely functional set, especially the Second Continental Congress’s chamber, which makes the direction and flow of the musical’s action not only a pleasure to watch but a success to behold. Many other directors would get lost in the emphasis of so many influential roles, fleeting secondary characters, and throw-away lines, but Bradford and Saucerman lead this cast with a strong vision and clear eye for detail. Their cast’s ability to shine individually and move as an ensemble, thanks to Sally Ashton Forrest, make this musical a step above most musicals in the area.
While the music is hardly the focus on this musical, ironically, Michael V. Joseph coaches the actors to much success in most of their individual and ensemble songs, notably, Adam’s “Piddle, Twiddle, Resolve,” “The Egg,” and Rutledge’s “Molasses to Rum.” The orchestra is clear and precise, though not the best or worst that you’ll see all season – they fade into the background to allow the focus to be on the characters and stories, a welcome treat when some other local orchestras have overpowered the stage. The Company Theatre’s 1776 is a commanding treat, a visual masterpiece of costumes and staging, and a welcome production that performs with considerable success among its talented leading performers and strong ensemble. Performed not far from Boston, The Company Theatre’s production displays the power of the combined synergies of history, music, and storytelling to critical acclaim, making it a memorable production for the summer season.