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San Francisco by Richard Connema

Thirteen Yeas for 1776

The Willows Company are presenting an incredible production of Sherman Edwards’s 1776. I say without reservation that this production outshines the revival we saw on Broadway two years ago. 1776 needs to be in a small theater and this presentation creates a more intimate relationship between the audience and those sterling men from colonies. The voices and the acting of this cast were first rate. The artistic director informed me that it took three months to find the right actors, and it was well worth the search. I cannot find fault anyone in the cast.

The Willows has presented some marvelous musical productions like Funny Girl, Dreamgirls, Once Upon a Mattress, The Rothchilds and the great Brimstone - all won awards for Best Regional Musical. 1776 now joins the list.

I have been a fan of this musical since I first saw it in 1968 at Forty Six Theatre in New York, starring Williams Daniels, Howard de Silva, Betty Buckley and Ken Howard. I was friends with Mr. de Silva and I was happy to see this fine actor back on the stage after the so called Red Scare, when he was ostracized by Senator McCarthy. I fell in love with the musical as soon as I heard the first number, “Sit Down John”. I knew I was in for something different and important and I was able to see the Tony winning show three times in New York during its 1217 performance run and twice more in London. The audience in London gave it a rousing reception. When the production played in LA I saw it yet again.

In 1971 Jack Warner purchased the musical for filming. Mr. Warner took the film to Columbia and hired Peter Hunt and Harry Stradling Jr. to direct and photograph the film. I was able to sign on as part of the camera crew and as the publicity person. I was taking mostly still shots for the publicity and marketing deptartment. I had a happy eight weeks there and enjoyed being with the (mostly original) cast from New York. It was interesting that Mr. Warner, who was on the extreme right of politics, let Mr. de Silva play Ben Franklin, who was on the opposite end of the political spectrum. Unfortunately Mr. Warner threw out a lot of political dialogue that was left of center and the film was cut to two hours running time.

When it was announced that the Roundabout was going to do a revival two years ago, I was excited and I had to see what they would do with the production. Unfortunately, by the time we got to New York the musical had transferred to the barn-like Gershwin Theatre with Michael McCormick as Adams and David Huddleston as Franklin. The musical was lost in that theater. It was also near end of the run and the actors were lifeless. What a disappointment.

When the Willows announced they would be doing a revival, I hoped that it would restore my faith in this musical. Well it most certainly did. At its heart this is a play of ideas; a drama and musical for the intellect. The score by Sherman Edwards puts the songs right where they should be. Each song is exactly as long as it should be and the music is muscular and compelling. The libretto of Peter Stone is one of the best books I have ever seen. It is flawlessly proportioned.

Director Andrew Holtz assembled a brilliant cast of actors and singers and his direction was impeccable. John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, Ben Franklin, Edward Rutledge and John Dickerson all came to life on the Willows stage.

Rick Williams was superb in the role of John Adams. He was almost as good as William Daniels though not quite as divinely furious as Mr. Daniels. Even though John Adams is obnoxious and disliked, I found the role fascinating. Williams has an excellent singing voice and his solo of “Is Anybody There” was incredible. No one can touch Howard de Silva as the original Ben Franklin, but Robert Rossman put a different spin on the distinguish philosopher from Pennsylvania. He makes Mr. Franklin more lovable and cuddly.

One of the most outstanding moments of the production was Mark Farrell singing “Molasses to Rum”. What an astonishing performance. He sung the hell out of the song and it brought down the house. Simon Vance’s Dickinson is on the par with the Dickinsons I have seen in the past. He was a little flat on his “Cool Cool Considerate Men”; however he made up for this with his acting ability. The chorus was powerful.

The two women, Milissa Carrey as Abigail Adams and Heather Ramsey as Martha Jefferson, were striking. When Milissa and Williams sang “Yours, Yours, Yours” it was electrifying. She has a beautiful trained voice. Ms. Ramsey was charming singing one of my favorite songs, “He Plays the Violin”.

I can’t let this review go by without mentioning Zach Diestler as the courier. His rendition of “Momma Look Sharp” was one of the best I have ever seen and heard. His voice was soft and gentle and he put a lot of heart into the number.

The set was interesting, beginning with a role of colonial row houses which rolled around to reveal the chambers where the delegates meet. This brought an authentic look to the show. The music was reproduced for this production using four synthesizers programmed to play 32 instruments simultaneously in real time using Cubase sequencing software. It was fine and it did not have the tinny sound often associated with synthesizers.

I left the theater once again knowing that this was an exhilarating experience in both mind and body - a magnificent production by the Willows. It gets my 'yea' vote.

The production runs through July 22 at the Willows Theatre, 1975 Diamond Ave, Concord Ca. 925-798-1300. Tickets are $30 general, $25 for seniors and $20 students.

Cheers!


- Richard Connema



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