Company Theatre crafts a warm, winning ‘1776’

Doug Jabara and Erin McMillen in the Company Theatre's production of "1776." Photo: Zoe Bradford

Doug Jabara and Erin McMillen in the Company Theatre’s production of “1776.” Photo: Zoe Bradford

NORWELL – “!776” has never really gotten its due as one of the great American musicals.

It works on several levels: as a history lesson, since most Americans are woefully ignorant of the turmoil that surrounded the weeks preceding the approval of the Declaration of Independence; as a tribute to our Founding Fathers, humanizing therm, detailing their strengths and flaws; and as a darn-good musical with a stirring score.

The production of “1776” at the Company Theatre is a winning one. The vast majority of the cast of 26 have hit the marks, especially so in the main roles.

“1776” takes place in Philadelphia a year after the fateful encounters at Lexington and Concord, when the Continental Army under the direction of George Washington is fighting the British but the 13 colonies can’t agree on whether they should be joined together at the hip, as they have vastly different agendas.

The character of the play’s protagionist, Massachusetts’ John Adams, doesn’t have to have a strong singing voice –William Daniels played the part on Broadway and in the film with essentially no singing voice and most of his numbers are patter-like — but it certainly doesn’t hurt to have one, and Bob DeVivo is certainly up to the requirements of the role, although he could turn up the “obnoxious and disliked” portion of his character even a bit more.

Doug Jabara is the best pure singer I’ve ever seen in the role of Dr. Benjamin Franklin — and I’ve seen Rex Everhart, Howard DaSilva and Pat Hingle play the role — but he’s a bit younger than most actors who play it, and while he captures the heart of the rapscallion and his mischievous nature, he at times slips away a bit from the movements of an old man.

Andrew Giordano sings "Molasses to Rum" in "1776." Photo: Zoe Bradford

Andrew Giordano sings “Molasses to Rum” in “1776.”    Photo: Zoe Bradford

 

Robert Case is spot-on as John Dickinson, the Pennsylvanian who stood between the pro-independence forces and their goal, and he showed off a fine singing voice in the beautifully staged “Cool, Cool Considerate Men.”

The women of “1776,” perform a valuable service in the piece, softening the tone of the testosterone-tinted activities of the warring lawmakers.

Stephanie Mann as Abigail Adams is the sounding board and confidant for the play’s protagionist, Massachusetts’ John Adams, and her winning stage presence and lovely singing voice plays off well against DeVivo as Adams, in the lovely duet in “Yours, Yours, Yours.” The lyrics of the songs the Adams sing were taken from actual letters between the couple.

Erin McMillen is luminous as a young Martha Jefferson, charming both Adams and Franklin as she dances with them and explains how Tom won her over in “He Plays The Violin.”

Dave Daly lends gravitas and has the requisite patient demeanor as John Hancock, the president of the Continental Congress before he went into insurance, and John F. King takes advantage of his moment in the sun as Richard Henry Lee of Virginia, in the humorous “The Lees of Old Virginia.”

Bob Gumpright is fine as Maryland’s Samuel Chase, and young Trey Lundquist holds his own as Thomas Jefferson.

Alas, Jim Gordon had problems with Col. Thomas McKean, and his thick Scottish burr was impenetrable, rendering much of his dialogue inaudible. It’s a tough accent to do well, but better to tone it down a bit than to lose the dialogue altogether.

There were some technical issues at a recent performance. A couple of drops in the set didn’t quite make it over the raised set of the Continental Congress in the rear. Powdered wigs are always problematical, and some of the powdered wigs in the cast are a bit ill-fitting and more closely resemble bird nests. Heavy summer tans – I have one, too – should be more offset by using more makeup to dull the tans, which can be jarring under a powdered wig with strong lighting.

I’ve had the privilege of seeing some fine singer/actors such as John Cullum and Gregg Edelman play Edward Rutledge, the fiery South Carolinian, and Andrew Giordano sends chills down your spine with his stirring, emotional rendition of “Molasses to Rum,” the show’s signature song, a paean to the hypocrisy of New England’s involvement in the slave trade while forces led by Adams and Franklin are trying to ban slavery in the new nation, a fight that would go for the better part of a century.

Danny Bolton,the winner of an IRNE for last year’s performance in “The Drowsy Chaperone,” has taken the part of Congressional Secretary Charles Thompson and made it more than it should be, bonding with the dispatches from a forlorn General Washington.

Directors Zoe Bradford and Jordie Saucerman have skillfully managed the cast of 26, and the brisk pacing is right for a show that can be a little talky at times.

One area where the Company Theatre doesn’t skimp is the size of the orchestra, and trust me, you can tell and it makes a big difference. Spare me those troupes trying to play, say, a Lerner and Loewe score with 6-8 pieces. Michael V. Joseph’s 16-piece ensemble gives full voice to the patriotic rhythms of Sherman Edwards’ score.

“1776” is a winner, and the Company Theatre’s production is also.

The Company Theatre production of “1776.” Music and lyrics by Sherman Edwards. Book by Peter Stone, based on Edwards’ concept. Directed by Zoe Bradford and Jordie Saucerman. Staging by Sally Ashton Forrest. Musical direction by Michael V. Joseph. At the Company Theatre, Norwell, through Aug. 16. http://www.companytheatre.com.

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