All Things Entertaining and Cultural
1776, Media Theatre, 104 E. State Street, Media, Pa. through Sunday, May 22 — Strong performances, especially by Luke Brahdt and Bob Stineman as two Continental Congress representatives that are respectively not for uniting the states or independence, galvanize Jennie Eisenhower’s production of this amiable chestnut into a taut, entertaining history lesson that provides tension and suspense even though you know, and live, the outcome.
Ben Dibble is an admirable John Adams and starts Eisenhower’s staging with authority and gusto. Dibble could have eased up on some exaggerated “good G-ds” that sound more like shtick than Adams and he could have sung rather than spoken more of the opening “Piddle, Twiddle, and Resolve,” but for the most part, he conveys the urgency Adams had to get independence declared and provides solid leadership for a generally fine cast in which bit players such as Geoffrey Bruen, Bill van Horn, Rusty Flounders, Roger Ricker, and Patrick Ludt (who looks the best in his period wig) add to the cohesion and texture of Sherman Edwards and Peter Stone’s musical.
Dibble, Brahdt, and Stineman give firm dramatic footing to the political battles and compromises that led to a new nation conceived in liberty, while the excellent John Morrison provides humor and common sense as Ben Franklin, and Joseph O’Brien combines youthful libido and stoic diplomacy as Thomas Jefferson. Elyse Langley also stands out as a vibrant and beautifully voiced Abigail Adams.
Many contribute grandly, but Brahdt and Stineman steal this show, as hard as Dibble and Morrison make that to do. Brahdt, impressive in the range, depth, and intensity he’s shown during his first year on Philadelphia’s professional stages, is nothing less than brilliant as Edward Rutledge, the South Carolina delegate who uses accusations of Northern and Jeffersonian hypocrisy as his weapon as he forces Adams and others to table slavery to another document if they want the Declaration of Independence to pass and a union to form.
However Rutledge’s arguments and insistences sound to a 21st century audience, Brahdt presents them with weighty sincerity and deadly seriousness. He does not revert to modern sensibility and seem the least apologetic or ashamed. He is a man of purpose and action. You believe his Rutledge will scuttle the chance to form the United States if he does not get his way. There’s acid in his logic and confidence in every step he takes. His “Molasses to Rum to Slaves” is the outstanding highlight of a show that includes Dibble’s stirring rendition of “Is Anybody There?,” Meredith Beck’s merrily melodic “He Plays the Violin,” and Thomas Lock’s touching, “Mama Look Sharp.”
Brahdt freezes the room with Rutledge’s venom and poise. His voice is easily the strongest and surest on the stage, and he creates excitement beyond Edwards’s dramatic placement of the song or the complicity/duplicity it portends. Deft at drama, comedy, period pieces, and musicals, Brahdt is a rising star who already outclasses many who have preceded him on local stages. (If only he hadn’t been saddled with a wig that doesn’t fit his face, one the meticulous Rutledge would not have chosen!)
Stineman is also riveting. He too exudes sincerity as John Dickinson, the Pennsylvania representative who understands the grievances Congress addresses too slowly for Adams’s taste but who prefers to resolve them without severing ties to King George III and country.
Stineman’s Dickinson is a commanding presence who stands up well to Adams, Franklin, Jefferson, and others and gives Dickinson’s attitude credence even when he threatens to be the villain of the piece.
Besides some of the wigs and Jefferson’s black on white costume, the only cavils I have with Eisenhower’s production are the placement of the tote board that lists the states’ votes — It is vertical at an angle just left of upstage center and can’t be seen in full by people sitting house right, taking away some tension and drama — and not putting a special spotlight on Delaware’s Caesar Rodney when he makes a noble return from his death bed to insure Delaware’s vote for independence. Besides celebrating Rodney’s heroism, focus would congratulate Nicholas Saverine for his fine turn as Rodney. The one number that backfires, although not disastrously, or even damagingly, is Larry Lees’s turn as Richard Henry Lee in the song I am humming as I write. “The Lees of Virginia.” It’s the one time during the show I saw a show biz performance instead of a character trying to get a point across.
In general, Eisenhower’s production is as cool and engaging as the conservative delegates Stineman’s Dickinson leads in a minuet of solidarity. Eisenhower proves to be a deft choreographer. Christopher Ertelt’s band sound terrific. Votes for independence have you on the edge of your seat. The signing sequence, in which Eisenhower projects a copy of the Declaration on an upstage center screen, with the names of the signers filling in as they inscribe them on American’s seminal document, is thrilling. Grade: A–