It seems very appropriate that Ford’s Theatre, with its focus on Americana and presence in the home of US political power, would choose to mount a production of Sherman Edwards’ (music and lyrics) and Peter Stone’s (book) Tony Award-winning musical, 1776. Premiering on Broadway in 1969 and revived in 1997, this musical is a unique within the American musical theatre cannon in that the cohesive and strong book stands on its own. Certainly, the diverse musical score adds an element to the show, but it’s not necessary to move the plot forward. When these strong components are combined with a talented and committed cast, the end result is likely to be quite good.
The Ford’s Theatre production is no exception to this rule. Its ensemble cast of 26 is comprised of DC theatre standouts, Broadway performers, and other regional theatre actors making their Ford’s Theatre/DC debut. Collectively, the group brings the story of the signing of the Declaration of Independence to life with much gumption, sense of purpose, and comedic timing. Although the most compelling scene is the final one, in which the Declaration is ultimately signed, the lead up scenes, which depict the members of Congress debating whether US independence from its colonial power is the right decision for the emerging nation, demonstrate the value of good ensemble work to create a through-line which will eventually pay off with a strong conclusion. The rousing opening number “For God’s Sake, John, Sit Down!” is clear evidence of this worthy group effort.
Because virtually every cast member is on an equal vocal and acting footing, it’s difficult to identify standout cast members in this truly ensemble piece. Nonetheless, Brooks Ashmanskas (John Adams), Stephen F. Schmidt (Richard Henry Lee), Christopher Bloch (Benjamin Franklin), Floyd King (Stephen Hopkins), Richard Pelzman (Colonel Thomas McKean), and Buzz Mauro (Caesar Rodney) deserve special mention. They excel in the moments their characters have to shine.
Ashmanskas more than adequately depicts John Adams’ strong personality with much vigor and determination. “Piddle, Twiddle and Resolve,” expertly sung by Ashmanskas, sets the tone for his eventual progression from staunch and bold leader with a singular interest in mind, to one that stays true to his ideology, but sees the value in working with others to achieve a political end. Ashmanskas has a tendency to overact on occasion when Adams is competing for influence within the political debate, but because Adams is larger than life, it’s not to the detriment of the piece. He engages very well with Kate Fisher (a very vocally strong Abigail Adams) during the scenes depicting his personal life, which provide a necessary subtle contrast to those which involve political debate.
Schmidt exudes southern charm as Richard Henry Lee. He shines vocally in the early part of the show, and takes on some very funny choreography (Michael Bobbitt) during the romp “The Lees of Old Virginia” with endless commitment and energy. Bloch is thoughtful as the intellectual Benjamin Franklin and has a steady presence throughout the show. He adds some variety to his character during his scene with Martha Jefferson (a charming and endearing Erin Kruse) and John Adams as he remarks on Thomas Jefferson’s (a strong William Diggle) marriage. King makes the most of his alcohol-loving character. With a few bits of dialogue with Congressional Custodian Andrew McNair (Drew Eshelman), he can make the audience chuckle for a moment and then quickly bring them back into the political debate at play. Pelzman has a larger-than-life presence on stage that is appropriate for a military leader. His scenes with the other representatives from Delaware, played by Buzz Mauro and Chris Sizemore, depend on his strong acting to convey the political divisions within that state. Mauro is a grounding force in what is essentially a comedic show. Usually, Rodney is a bit of a throwaway role because he is not seen throughout the entire show, but Mauro adds some interesting layers to depict the struggle of a dying man to see his political activities through. His struggling walk to sign the Declaration of Independence is compelling and a bit emotional.
Other cast members are also given moments to show off their incredible vocal talent. Signature Theatre favorite Sam Ludwig uses his strong tenor voice to great advantage while singing the Courier’s song, “Momma, Look Sharp.” Likewise, Gregory Mahau (Edward Rutledge) takes on the bombastic song “Molasses to Rum” with much enthusiasm and demonstrates considerable vocal prowess. Even so, a bit more abandon would be desirable.
Overall, the production values are first rate. Peter Flynn, as director, chose to use a realistic and traditional approach to stage the show. Although the pacing is a bit slow in the middle portion of the show and the intermission is placed in a questionable moment, the end result is satisfying with the final scene. He brings out the best in his ensemble cast as does musical director, Jay Crowder. Nearly every vocal moment is purposeful. The orchestra, conducted by George Fulginiti-Shakar, though small at only 8 players, sounds larger than it really is and plays the show with much enthusiasm and precision. Wade Laboissonniere’s costumes are appropriately 18th century. The attention to detail is noteworthy. Likewise, Tony Cisek’s scenic design depicting Philadelphia’s Independence Hall, makes good use of platforms and moveable doors and windows. It’s professional, to be sure, but not overly complex to the point where it overshadows the material. The use of scrims is a nice touch in the final scene as is Nancy Schertler’s lighting design.
I would whole-heartedly recommend this production of a very strong musical theatre piece. Though it may not be ground-breaking, it will likely play very well to the politically-savvy DC metro area audiences. Those that follow Congressional activity will relate the in-fighting and personality and interest conflicts among the representatives from the 13 colonies to our experiences today – with the possible difference that in this case, a resolution was achieved.
Running Time: 2 hours and 50 minutes, including a 15 minute intermission.
1776 plays at Ford’s Theatre- 511 10th Street NW, in Washington, DC- through May 19, 2012. For tickets, call the box office at (202) 347-4833, or purchase them online.