1776 – An Atlanta Theater Fans Review

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Robert Wayne as Benjamin Franklin, David Parlier as John Adams, and Don Smith as Thomas Jefferson in 1776. Photo by Ricks Big Pics

A joint production between Dorsey Theater and HB Productions, the musical 1776 has a book by Peter Stone and music and lyrics by Sherman Edwards and won the 1969 Tony Award® for Best Musical.

1776 tells the story of John Adams’ (David Parlier) attempts to convince the Second Continental Congress to officially declare its independence from the British throne. As the catalyst for much of the show’s conflict, Parlier is superb from start to finish. While perhaps a little old to play the role as written (more on that later), Parlier plays Adams with an all-encompassing passion for his cause and a frustrated exacerbation with those that oppose him. Parlier handles the drama, humor and singing that the role requires with a professional ease. The show often sputters when he is not on stage, so fortunately, he rarely leaves it.

The show’s other strongest asset is Robert Wayne’s Benjamin Franklin. Masterful with Franklin’s comedic aphorisms, Wayne provides the proceedings with a sense of sanity as many of the other delegates seem to be either caricatures or simply crazy. Wayne is fantastic vocally and adds a needed charm and warmth to the production.

The remainder of the cast is a bit inconsistent, but provides entertaining elements throughout. Tony Smithey (Richard Henry Lee) gives a humorous, if not over the top, performance of “The Lees of Old Virginia,” and Joe Lowery (Lewis Morris/Robert Livingston) and C. Augustus Godbee (Charles Thompson), who both have opera experience, provide exceptional bass to the already strong choral numbers, especially in “For God’s Sake, John, Sit Down” and “Cool, Cool Considerate Men.” One of those cool, considerate men, John Dickinson, played thoughtfully and impressively by Stan Heaton, provides Adams with a worthy adversary. However, Hal Brody (Co-producer), as South Carolina delegate Edward Rutledge, delivers a confusing (and perhaps confused) and ultimately odd performance of “Molasses to Rum.”

The ensemble sputters during the legendary debate scene, noted for being the longest scene in musical theater history without any music, either sung or played. The debate, which provides the context for the contentious fight is slow and stumbling. If it weren’t for the bouncy “But, Mr. Adams” ending the scene, the show could have been derailed permanently. In that song, the Congress settles on Thomas Jefferson (Don Smith) to write the document that becomes the Declaration of Independence.

The only two women in this male-dominated cast are Mary Beth Morrison (Abigail Adams) and Whitney Umstead Sinkule (Martha Jefferson). While Sinkule serviceably performs “He Plays a Violin,” Morrison plays Abigail with a detached aloofness and doesn’t seem to have the soprano that her songs require. In a part that should be every bit the equal of her husband, all too often, Morrison allows Parlier to dominate their songs and scenes unnecessarily.

As has been discussed by musical theater fans and high school history teachers for decades, 1776 is chock-full of historical inaccuracies. However, many, if not all, are readily accepted, because fitting the formation of a new nation into a two and a half hour musical is not an easy process. With that acceptance of theatrical convention in mind, it is difficult to understand why this production felt the need to inaccurately amend biographical information for major characters simply to fit their specific cast. It seemed wholly unnecessary to add a decade to John Adams’ age only so that is was closer to Parlier’s. Additionally, the production further confused the situation by eliminating the character of New York delegate Robert Livingston and folding his role into Morris and changing the lyrics to “But, Mr. Adams,” just to provide Lowery with more stage time.

Despite an amateur set, decorated extensively with tape; extravagant, but anachronistic costumes; an oddly included robot dance move; and a hissing sound system, the scene where the delegates finally sign the Declaration of Independence was surprisingly moving, until the action was drowned out by a synthesizer that sounded far too modern for such a historic scene. The other obvious issue with the scene is that none of the signers actually signed the Declaration, even though the cast regularly displayed it as if they had.

Directed by Sandra Ellenburg-Dorsey, 1776 at the cramped Dorsey Theater won’t be one of the season’s best productions; however, some of the leads do provide some first-rate performances. As the country prepares to determine its leader for the next four years without a single drop of blood being shed, it has enough talent and heart to remind us what an exceptional accomplishment hatching the American “egg” truly was.

1776 plays at the Dorsey Theatre through October 7, 2012. For more information visit their website or call 1-800-838-3006.

– Matt Tamanini