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Seattle by Jonathan Frank


1776 and
Spinning Into Butter

History, it is argued, is written by the winners. Historical dramas, on the other hand, are up for grabs by any and all comers. From Shakespeare's history plays to Copenhagen, any show based on a historic event or personage has undergone some sort of revisionist transformation or distillation. In order to fully understand and appreciate the show, one must at least discover the author's lens, if not peer through it directly.

The musical 1776, which is currently playing at Seattle's Fifth Avenue Theatre through March 27th was an unqualified, if unexpected, hit when it opened on Broadway March 16, 1969, running for 1,217 performances. Winning five Tony Awards, beating out another 'revolutionary' musical, Hair, for Best musical, it nonetheless manages to be subtly subversive. Picture if you will: the year is 1969. Richard Nixon is president and the Vietnam 'conflict' keeps escalating with every passing day. The nation is more divided than at any time since the Civil War, largely over the same issue that fuelled that conflict; race relations. Out of that turmoil came a show that explored the meaning of 'patriotism' when it was considered by many to be the longest four-letter word imaginable. Not only that, but it presented our founding fathers (and a few mothers) as human beings who argued, bitched, belched, were so horny they could barely think, yet still managed to achieve something unprecedented at the time; create a new world in their image.

1776
Patti Cohenour and David Pichette in 1776
With a book by Peter Stone, which happens to be of the most finely crafted books ever to be written for a musical, and music by songwriter and historian Sherman Edwards, 1776 explores in largely historically correct detail an event of which we already know the outcome; the signing of the Declaration of Independence. Characters that we are marginally familiar with are brought to vivid life in the process. Thomas Jefferson (Abe Reybold) is portrayed as a brooding loner more concerned about getting home to his wife (Kim Huber) than spawning a new nation. John Adams (David Pichette) is (using Adams' own words) obnoxious and disliked. Ben Franklin (Julian Patrick) is a gouty horndog of a sage. And these are the 'heroes'! Indeed, the largest strength of the show is that there are no true villains. As Benjamin Franklin remarks while chastising Adams towards the end of the play, "...like it or not, [those disagreeing with Adams] and the people they represent will be a part of the new country you hope to create." Despite what you may think of them ideologically, all involved are patriots with strong convictions and can not be easily discounted.

Indeed, that actually provided one of the few missed notes in this production. While Stephen Terrell has directed and choreographed the finest show of his I have seen to date, one glaring flaw prevents me from giving it a full 100% enthusiastic rave. As I mentioned, one of the greatest strengths of 1776 is that both sides of any of the myriad debates in the show are equally passionate and devoted to their respective causes. It is the clashing of personalities firmly believing that they are in the right which makes for the gripping theater that is 1776; you already know the outcome, but somehow you forget, due to the overwhelming odds against such a thing from occurring. Thus, the stakes should be extraordinarily high and John Adams must be matched by opposition equally as resolute. In this production, the part of John Dickinson (David Quicksall) was disappointingly overwhelmed by Adams. The part calls for an equally fervent and far more charming opponent for Adams in order to propel the action to its furthest. He has to be as devoted to his cause as Adams is, and have the charm and charisma that Adams lacks. His scenes contained too many missed chances, chief of which was a disappointedly limp "Cool, Cool, Considerate Men;" a number so inflammatory that Richard Nixon (who ordered the first full-length command performance of a show in the White House with 1776) fought to have it cut from the movie. Given the political climate, this number should have been much more powerful than it was.

Otherwise, the show is strong with a great cast that makes the most of their parts. David Pichette as Adams is able to be both obnoxious and likable; no easy feat indeed. As his wife, Abigail, Patti Cohenour brings a subtlety and dry wit to the part, as well as a glorious voice. Kim Huber (Martha Jefferson) and Joe Mahowald (Richard Henry Lee) deliver stronger performances than their respective counterparts in the recent Broadway revival. Abe Reybold (Thomas Jefferson) displayed a quiet dignity and a subtle reserve which was masterful in its understatement. And Christopher Guilmet (Edward Rutledge) did a splendid job as the slave trader you feel guilty about applauding.

Kevin Rupnik's breathtaking design consisted of an intricate box that would open to reveal a Philadelphia meeting hall or slide shut to provide street scenes. The orchestra, conducted by Joel Fram, were in top form and all involved provided a splendid evening.

I wish the same could be said about Spinning into Butter, now running at the Seattle Repertory Theatre, which is about as subtle as a sledgehammer to the back of the head and just as painful. Spinning into Butter is one of those well meaning, but misguided, plays in which the message is the prime motivator in the drama, and the characters and actions only serve to act as mouthpiece for the message. The nearly three hour show can be distilled into two words; "racism bad."

Written by Rebecca Gilman and set in a predominately white college campus in Vermont, the show starts out promisingly enough. Dean Sarah Daniels (Julie Brisman Hall) is navigating a verbal minefield as she tries to give a $12,000 scholarship to a minority student. Everything she says, no matter how well meaning, is wrong and only serves to alienate her further and further from the student (Brian Homer). If the play had stuck with how the fear of being politically correct has made it almost impossible to communicate, and how in spending so much time worrying about labels we forget to see people as, well, people, we might have had a show worth seeing. Instead the show veers all over the place in scenes usually too long and largely unnecessary with characters who are not people but caricatures.

The one character we care about in the mix, Sarah Daniels, looses our sympathy, nay, even our interest, in an overlong monologue that comes out of nowhere detailing her own racist tendencies (which basically boil down to her having a hierarchy of seating preference on public transportation). The rest of the characters fail to engage the audience as they are puppets for whatever winds of message the writer wants us to hear.

Spinning into Butter
Christine McMurdo-Wallis and Julie Briskman Hall in Spinning into Butter
Photo: Chris Bennion
Spinning into Butter ends as it begins, on a promising note. The show settles down and Sarah and a student (Tommy Smith) actually sit and talk as people about racism and the impact it has. More importantly, they discover that by simply conversing with a person, be it a member of the majority or minority, instead of with a group or a preconceived idealized entity, they get to know them as an individual and the walls of racism start to develop cracks. What a novel concept. Too bad they didn't think of it three hours earlier.

1776 runs at the Fifth Avenue Theatre through March 27th. Spinning into Butter runs at the Seattle Repertory Theatre through April 14th.




- Jonathan Frank



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