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San Francisco by Richard Connema

Willows Theatre Revives
the Interesting 1776

1776
Noah James Butler, John Hetzler and Rick Williams
Last year, the Willows Theatre Company took a poll of their subscription audience as to what they would like to see revived on the Willows stage in Concord. The overwhelming result was Sherman Edwards and Peter Stone's 1776. The Willows 2000 production was hailed by critics and was the recipient of four Bay Area Theatre Critics Awards, including Best Musical.

I have seen the sterling musical at least ten times since the first production on Broadway in 1968 at the 46th Street Theatre that starred William Daniels as John Adams, Howard de Silva as Benjamin Franklin, Betty Buckley as Martha, Ken Howard as Thomas Jefferson, and John Cullum as Edward Rutledge. I have seen several productions in London, including the famous production at the Drury Lane Theatre on July 4th, 1969. The 1997 revival at the huge Gershwin Theatre did not tilt me since it got lost in that barn of a theatre. I also worked as part of the publicity department when Jack Warner brought the musical over to the Columbia lot (my only time at that studio). I watched the filming and did publicity shots every day during the filming. Needless to say, it has become one of my most favorite musicals of all time.

1776 is more like a drama with music, including a forty-five minute stretch of dialogue without one note of music. Sherman Edwards, who was a history teacher, wanted to give the public a sense of what happened during those early days at the Second Continental Congress. There is increasing suspense in watching the group of colorful characters and the confrontations between the members of the Congress trying to write a declaration of independence. The play's innovative structure adds to the tension of the drama.

Andrew Holtz has assembled a fine cast. Twenty-eight actors fill the stage with some great choral work, and once again Rick Williams is superb as John Adams. His vocal rendition of "Is Anyone There?" is outstanding. He captures the manner of the "man who is so disliked by his fellow representatives." Director Holtz has made this production more humorous, especially for the John Adams character. Where the humor seemed to rest on the character of Benjamin Franklin in prior productions, John Hetzler plays the role differently. He delivers the droll lines with a dry and minimalist skill.

"Cool, Cool Considerate Men" is beautifully sung and danced by Patrick Sieler, who is excellent as John Dickinson. He has a commanding melodic voice and his English accent is perfect. He is aided splendidly by the conservatives of the Congress. Gregory Lucas plays the youngest member of the Congress, Edward Rutledge of South Carolina, and is compelling when singing the powerful song "Molasses to Rum," a heated rage in defense of slavery. Once again, the song is certainly a show stopper. Jeff Bryant scores with his solo musical number, the antiwar lament "Mamma Look Sharp." Noah James Butler gives an eloquent performance as Thomas Jefferson. Chuck Dresel as Richard Henry Lee gives a comical rousing performance when singing "The Lees of Old Virginia."

Scarlett Hepworth and Meghan Doyle as Abigail Adams as Martha Jefferson have engaging voices. Meghan Doyle has great thematic resonance when singing "He Plays the Violin," and the duets between Ms Hepworth and Mr. Williams are well done. The rest of the large cast consisting of Jesse Caldwell, Geotty Chapple, Ray Christensen, Gary Dailey, Gary Foley, David Hardie, Kevin High, Jasen Jeffrey, Russ Lorenson, Philip Lowery, Christopher Mantione, Marc Murai, Alexander Murphy (alternates with Andrew Moorhead as Leather Apron), Ron Pickett, Jonathan Spencer and Robin Taylor are all effective in their roles.

Anthony F. Holtz has put the intermission into this three-hour play after "Momma Look Sharp," which makes the musical top heavy, with a long first act and a very short second act. He uses the theatre "computer music box" for the score and it works well in this intimate theatre. Set design by Jean-Francois Revon is a very detailed look of the room where the Congress meets. It also turns to show various scenes on the Philadelphia street.

1776 runs through July 2 at the Willows Theatre, 1975 Diamond Blvd, Concord. To purchase tickets please call 925-798-1300 or visit www.willowstheatre.org.

The Willows Theatre will present MuirFest Gala on Monday, July 3rd at the John Muir Amphitheater, Martinez Waterfront Park. For more information on that event please go to www.willowstheatre.org.


Photo: Judy Potter


Cheers - and be sure to Check the lineup of great shows this season in the San Francisco area

- Richard Connema



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