"1776," at SCERA Shell Outdoor Theatre
by Eric D. Snider
Published on July 12, 2002
Once you get past the over-abundance of "Congress-is-worthless" jokes and corny Ben Franklin witticisms, you have in "1776" a fascinating civics lesson and a smartly entertaining show.
It is the story of the Second Continental Congress, which eventually drafted and signed the Declaration of Independence, but which first went through numerous internal struggles.
Those struggles make up the show's plot. John Adams (E. Scott Wells) is the fiery advocate of independence; unfortunately, as several people observe, he is "obnoxious and disliked," which lessens his chances of convincing the congress to sign any kind of declaration. Through Richard Henry Lee (Daniel Beck), he gets Virginia's support, which opens the door. Still, though, the document has to be written, and once it is, there are disagreements about almost every word in it. (Anyone who has ever tried to write something by committee will cringe in recognition during that scene.)
Conflict abounds. Pennsylvania is overly cautious, desiring mostly to retain ties to England. Delaware tends to side with Pennsylvania. The Carolinas stick together. New York keeps abstaining, courteously. It's "hot as hell" (or, as SCERA has white-washed the lyrics, "hot and smells") in Philadelphia. Thomas Jefferson (Kyle Fotheringham), assigned to draft the declaration, cannot write until his wife arrives and relieves his writer's block, if you know what I mean. You know how the show's going to end, but darned if it doesn't build some suspense along the way.
This show is not often produced, in part because it requires a couple dozen men and only two women -- the opposite of how the gender ratios run in most theaters' talent pools. Agnes Broberg, directing the show at the SCERA Shell, is to be commended for finding enough men to fill the roles, and, even more impressively, for generally finding men around the right age, too.
That said, not every role is acted with as much charisma or flair as you'd want in a Founding Father. As Thomas Jefferson, Kyle Fotheringham is trying to do "dignified" and comes off as bored; Bill Card does more or less the same thing as Adams' opponent John Dickinson. I sense conviction in both performances, but it's focused down a blind alley, emotionally speaking.
E. Scott Wells is passionate and convincing as the determined John Adams. His singing voice was strained opening night, but his acting is more than adequate (and for a musical, there's surprisingly little singing in this show anyway).
Daniel Beck only has one major scene as Virginia's Richard Henry Lee, but he makes the most of it with an energetically funny performance. His number, "The Lees of Old Virginia," is the best song of the night.
Randy Honaker plays friendly coot Benjamin Franklin well, and Russell Card has a jolting turn as pro-slavery Edward Rutledge, whose "Molasses to Rum" song is downright haunting. (Ditto "Momma Look Sharp," a song from the front lines of the war, sung plaintively by David Peterson.) The costumes, mostly on loan from Pioneer Theatre Company, look authentic and lend an air of professionalism to the show.
Should you go? Yeah. The story of the signing of the Declaration of Independence comes to life even if not all of the characters do.
Copyright © Eric D. Snider.
This work may not be transmitted via the Internet, nor reproduced in any other way, without written consent from Eric D. Snider.