Theater Review: 1776

Gil Benbrook | Talkin’ Broadway | November 7, 2016

I have to believe that before Hamilton became a worldwide phenomenon there were many people who thought turning the story of Alexander Hamilton into a musical sounded like a crazy idea. I’m sure that forty years ago many people had the same thought about musicalizing the battle for United States’ independence, which features such fellow founding fathers to Hamilton as Benjamin Franklin, John Adams and Thomas Jefferson. Fortunately, just like Lin-Manuel Miranda didn’t let anyone dissuade him from writing his musical, composer/lyricist Sherman Edwards and librettist Peter Stone didn’t let any naysayers persuade them to stop working on their show, and the 1969 Tony winning musical 1776 was born. Even though we know going in what the outcome will be, Edwards and Stone have written a riveting show and Zao Theatre’s solid production has an exceptional cast who bring this famous story and these iconic individuals to life in vibrant fashion.

Set over a few months in the spring and summer of 1776, the show focuses on John Adams’ efforts to push the members of the Second Continental Congress to vote for independence. However, because Adams is “obnoxious and disliked,” his previous motions for independence have never gained any traction. His fellow compatriot Ben Franklin determines that if they can convince Virginian Richard Henry Lee to propose the motion instead of Adams, it would hopefully at least get debated and eventually approved. While Lee’s motion does get seconded and spurs a lively debate, getting the rest of the members of Congress, especially the more conservative members, to agree on independence is something that takes the combined efforts of Adams, Franklin and Thomas Jefferson. As the days go by and the dates on the calendar on stage get closer and closer to July 4th, the obstacles seem insurmountable.

Stone’s book is expertly written with characters and situations that are full of life, plus an element of suspense, even though we obviously know that the motion for independence did get approved. While Adams, Franklin and Jefferson are the three main characters, Stone also paints defined pictures of two dozen other men, including the other members of the Congress, the men who work in the chambers, and the wives of Adams and Jefferson. The dialogue is smart and funny but also poignant, with an ending that is moving. Edwards’ music is light and lively, with echoes of the period evoked in several fife and drum inspired arrangements, as well as a couple of moving and deeply emotional songs.

Zao’s cast is uniformly top notch. While Jack Pauly isn’t the strongest singer, he does fine with his songs and is quite good in showing the agitation Adams feels for his fellow constituents. He also expertly displays the frustration Adams encounters in his urgent need to obtain independence. He and Lizz Reeves Fidler, who is simply radiant as wife Abigail Adams, exhibit a deep, personal connection to each other. That’s impressive considering their three poignant duets are written as musicalized letters the couple has sent to each other and staged, as written, such that they don’t look at each other during their numbers, emphasizing the physical distance between them. Fidler clearly portrays Abigail as a smart, loving and caring woman and her singing voice is simply luminous, with notes that have a beautiful sheen.

Tim Fiscus makes for a superb Benjamin Franklin. He is charming, funny, persuasive, and even a little glib in his well-rounded portrayal of this endearing man. Jeff Montgomery is quite good as the quiet yet very smart Thomas Jefferson, and Rebecca Bryce is vibrant and charismatic as his wife Martha. Her delivery of “He Plays the Violin” is full of joy and life. Peter Cunniff and Bryan Stewart deliver strong portrayals of the show’s two antagonists, John Dickinson and Edward Rutledge. Cunniff is careful, cautious and calculating as Dickinson while Stewart is full of charm and charisma as Rutledge. They also get two of the best songs in the show, with Cunniff and his fellow conservatives delivering the coy, cheerful minuet “Cool, Cool, Considerate Men” and Stewart’s stirring and powerful performance of “Molasses to Rum” resulting in a scathing version of this song that emphasizes the economic benefits the North receives from the slavery trade even though they are against it.

The rest of the large cast is very good. Stand outs include Mark Hackmann as the smart, strong and perceptive John Hancock; Kellen Garner, who is larger than life as Richard Henry Lee; and Jeff Huffman, delightful as the constantly drunk Rhode Island delegate Stephen Hopkins. Randy Wawrzyniak-Fry is appropriately level headed as Charles Thomson, the dedicated secretary of the Continental Congress, while Tom Endicott is fiery as Colonel Thomas McKean. Tyler Galley plays a courier who delivers a haunting “Momma, Look Sharp,” and John LaPuzza is all business as Andrew McNair, the Congress custodian.

Director Mickey Bryce does an excellent job in showing Adams and his small gang’s relentless pursuit of independence with refined performances across the large cast and effective staging that makes the most of the large space. Choreographer Laura Christian has added some nice steps to several songs, including smart and effective moves in “Cool, Cool, Considerate Men.” Bryce also designed the set which works well to portray the Congress chamber as well as a few other locations. Louise “Alli” Alexshonis’ costumes, almost all of which were designed for this cast, are simply exquisite.

1776 is a thrilling musical that shows the struggles our Founding Fathers endured to gain our independence. With a talented cast, very good creative aspects, and assured direction, Zao Theatre delivers an impressive production of this very inspiring show.

The Zao Theatre production of 1776 runs through November 19th, 2016, with performances at Centerstage Church, 550 South Ironwood Drive in Apache Junction. You can get information and tickets by visiting www.zaotheatre.com. Tickets can also be ordered by calling (602) 320-3275

Music and Lyrics by Sherman Edwards
Book by Peter Stone
Directed by Mickey Bryce
Assistant Director: Larissa Brewington
Choreographer: Laura Christian
Set Design: Mickey Bryce
Costume Mistress: Louise “Alli” Alexshonis
Costumer: Diana Grubb
Properties: Carol Searle
Sound Engineer: John Schoenwolf
Stage Manager: Wendy Smith

Cast
John Adams: Jack Pauly
Benjamin Franklin: Tim Fiscus
John Dickinson: Peter Cunniff
Edward Rutledge: Bryan Stewart
Stephen Hopkins: Jeff Huffman
Thomas Jefferson: Jeff Montgomery
John Hancock: Mark Hackmann
Richard Henry Lee: Kellen Garner
Martha Jefferson: Rebecca Bryce
Abigail Adams: Lizz Reeves Fidler
Charles Thomson: Randy Wawrzyniak-Fry
Andrew McNair: John LaPuzza
Lewis Morris: Bill Wiatr
Dr. Lyman Hall: David Herbert
Rev. John Witherspoon: Tom Hall
James Wilson: Gary Helmbold
Courier: Tyler Galley
Leather Apron: Anthony Peters
Roger Sherman: Dan Stroud
Robert Livingston: Scott Sims
George Read: Gary Ellefson
Caesar Rodney: Mitch Etter
Col. Thomas McKean: Tom Endicott
Samuel Chase: Doug Ulmer
Josiah Bartlett: Brian Galley
Joseph Hewes: Bill Williamsen
William Hooper: Richard Searle

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