There’s no need for debate. The Dayton Playhouse’s production of “1776” is a winner.
Librettist Peter Stone and composer Sherman Edwards’ 1969 Tony Award-winning musical has always been one of the most artistically challenging shows ever conceived. In addition to requiring the participation of nearly 25 men, the score’s deceptively complicated demands and the sheer commitment to historical accuracy can take its toll on any organization bold enough to attempt it. In fact, it’s been nearly 20 years since this show was last seen in Dayton courtesy of a stellar national tour at the Victoria Theatre. Nonetheless, when done well, as is evident in Tina McPhearson’s brisk, crisp and jovial staging, you can’t help but be completely enticed by this brilliantly written, three-hour re-enactment of the birth of our nation at the hands of our brave, flawed Founding Fathers.
In May 1776 in Philadelphia, independence is of utmost importance to John Adams of Massachusetts who vows to free the 13 colonies from the grip of Great Britain. However, the Second Continental Congress has had enough of Adams’ grandstanding. So, with fervent persuasion and occasional bullying, he looks to his fellow congressmen to discover who would be most willing to aid in his seemingly impossible dream. The infamous and ingenious Benjamin Franklin of Pennsylvania, the friendly and upbeat Richard Henry Lee of Virginia, and the intellectual and introspective Thomas Jefferson of Virginia become chief players. But in Adams’ valiant quest, dissension comes into view, particularly from the opinion of John Dickinson, Franklin’s cohort in the Pennsylvania delegation along with James Wilson. Dickinson insists independence be voted upon unanimously. Matters become pricklier when hard-nosed Edward Rutledge of South Carolina detests the notion that slavery will be abolished. In order to appeal to the greater good, sacrifices are ultimately made to ensure the promise of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.
David Shough, who has had a standout season as an actor, director and designer, is perfectly cast as the hated, volatile Adams. His vocally firm and terrifically complex portrayal is fittingly abrasive but very passionate, which keeps the audience in his corner. A nearly unrecognizable Richard Young delivers one of his finest, most colorful performances as the cheerful Franklin who vividly reminds Adams of what is really at stake as the drama swells late in Act 2. Chris Tuell, a Playhouse newcomer, is enjoyably unobtrusive as the mild-mannered Jefferson. Tim Rezash brings sophisticated sting to the unyielding Dickinson while particularly leading the clever gavotte “Cool, Cool Considerate Men.” Shawn Hooks, as Rutledge, chillingly renders “Molasses to Rum,” one of the most intensely unnerving songs in the musical theater canon. The delightful Gary Watts, another Playhouse newcomer, brings lively glee to “The Lees of Old Virginia.” Charles Larkowski, as president John Hancock, oversees the action with grace and humility with delightful support from Matthew Lindsay as the humorously monotone secretary Charles Thomson. Additionally noteworthy are Brad Bishop as the meek Wilson, John Beck as the sickly Caesar Rodney, Alain Alejandro as Roger Sherman and Mark Reuter as Robert Livingston (a fine duo contributing to “But Mr. Adams”), Jon Horwitz as Dr. Lyman Hall, Steve Thompson as Dr. Josiah Bartlett, John Falkenbach as Stephen Hopkins, Greg Dixon as Lewis Morris, Jamie McQuinn as Rev. John Witherspoon, Brian Laughlin as Col. Thomas McKean, Sean Gunther as George Read, Mark Van Luvender as Samuel Chase, C.J. Suchyta as Joseph Hewes, and Andrew Spoon as the dedicated courier who delivers George Washington’s revealing correspondence from the front lines. Spoon’s beautifully poignant rendition of “Momma, Look Sharp” marvelously closes Act 1 with harmonic assistance from Thomas Caldwell as custodian Andrew McNair and Christian Johnson as Leather Apron. Outside the congressional chamber, an excellently conversational Sherri Sutter fills her radiant portrayal of Abigail Adams with warmth and wit, particularly joining Shough for the lovely duets “Till Then” and “Yours, Yours, Yours.” As Martha Jefferson, Maggie Carroll’s effervescence heightens the gorgeous waltz “He Plays the Violin.”
Pre-production video of 1776 by Art Fabian.
McPhearson, who also supplies props, assembles an artistic team including choreographer Allison Eder, musical director Ron Kindell, scenic designer Chris Newman, costumer Kathleen Carroll (the attractive period outfits for the men and Maggie’s striking gown are eye-catching), wig designers Steven Burton and Tim Grewe, lighting designer Anita Bachmann, and sound designer Bob Kovach. Kindell’s 14-member orchestra sounds tiny and distant but is not a hindrance.
Compromise didn’t come easy 240 years ago and feelings certainly remain strained among current lawmakers. But the suspense leading up to the signing of the Declaration of Independence still resonates to the fullest in this outstanding, rarely staged musical. So, be sure to visit the Dayton Playhouse for a history lesson you’ll never forget. Don’t let another 20 years pass you by.
1776” continues through May 22 at the Dayton Playhouse, 1301 E. Siebenthaler Ave., Dayton. Performances are Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m. and Sundays at 2 p.m. Act One: 105 minutes; Act Two: 55 minutes. Tickets are $18 for adults and $16 for seniors and students. For tickets or more information, call (937) 424-8477 or visit online at www.daytonplayhouse.com