Wednesday, August 12, 2015

History's Tangled Garden: '1776 the Musical'



            John Adams is obnoxious and disliked. So he persuades the colony of Virginia's representative Richard Henry Lee to make the motion for Independence, which this scion of Virgina's most aristocratic family does "grand-Lee," "delicate-Lee" and rather more "successful-Lee" than Adams could have because delegates from other states find his harping on the subject "obnoxious" and pig-headed.
            The year is 1776 and the state of Massachusetts has already been fighting the British for a whole year, from the guerilla warfare of in Lexington and Concord to the bloody battle of Bunker Hill, the British occupation of Boston, and Washington's siege of Boston, which ended victoriously when Boston's own Henry Knox retrieved the captured canon from Fort Ticonderoga (in upper New York) and dragged it all the way through the woods and mountains of New England to a placement in Dorchester Heights that forced the British to withdraw from the city.
            But in Philadelphia, where the Second Continental Congress has been meeting for a full year, absolutely nothing has been decided. This is the troubled status quo that the musical "1776," currently in production at Norwell's The Company Theatre, addresses as Adams and his allies (including Ben Franklin) try to manipulate the Congress into declaring war on the world's most powerful empire. The task becomes more difficult when the Congress's chairman, John Hancock, rules that a motion for independence must be approved unanimously. (Photo of Doug Jabara as Benjamin Franklin and Erin McMillen as Martha Jefferson:-photo by Zoe Bradford) 
              What could there possibly be to sing about? Well for a start there's the catchy "Mr. Adams, Mr. Adams" refrain in the ensemble piece in which an exasperated Congress joins in begging (or demanding) "For God's Sakes, John, Sit Down." There's the humorously courtly puffery of the song about the Virginia aristocrats, titled "The Lees of Old Virginia."


            And the show-stopper has always been the dark-side-of-American-independence anthem "Molasses to Rum" in which the Southern delegate Rutledge (Andrew Giordano) exposes the hypocrisy of Northern colonists who condemn slavery while directly profiting from the slave trade. The song's rousing performance drew cheers from an  audience savvy enough to recognize a home truth. 
            And while only two female characters appear in the piece -- big surprise: no female delegates were selected for this 18th century gathering -- the play's authors make full use of their presence in the tale. Drawing on Abigail Adams's presence through her famous correspondence with her husband, "1776" has the eloquent Adams couple join in a couple of duets about missing each other. And Thomas Jefferson's wife, the only female character who actually appears in Philadelphia, takes part a charming tribute to Renaissance man TJ, "He Plays the Violin."
            These performers (Stephanie Mann and Erin McMillen, respectively) have impressive, trained voices. The Company Theatre's male cast, particularly the leads, can sing as well as act, and the theater's 16-piece stage orchestra does a boffo job of realizing the show's musical capabilities without overwhelming the singers.
            Whether you've seen (and enjoyed) the popular movie version of "1776" or not, The Company Theatre's polished live performance of "1776 the Musical," an always-relevant shaping of a messy, but thoroughly crucial episode in national history, provides a large helping of pleasure with a tangy after-taste of inspiration.