Regional Reviews: Cleveland & Akron
The musical opened on Broadway in 1969 to warm reviews, going on to complete a run of 1,217 performances with five Tony Award nominations and three wins, including Best Musical. The 1972 movie version was universally panned and is unfortunately the main source of exposure for many. A Broadway revival in 1997-98 ran for 333 performances, and the show continues to be produced regionally and around the world.
It is a hot late June in 1776 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, and the fledgling Continental Congress is in session. Temperatures and tempers are rising as Congress tries to decide whether to break away from Great Britain. It has only been less than a year since the first shots in the American Revolutionary War were fired at Lexington and Concord. General George Washington is desperately trying to keep his rag tag army together as the British army, supplemented with various hired foreign soldiers, are poised for attack against New York. Washington sends daily dispatches to Congress, each one with darker news than the previous one.
John Adams (Peter Bradley) and friends Benjamin Franklin (Amanda Bender), Richard Henry Lee (Michael Obertacz), and Thomas Jefferson (Braelin Andrzejewski) are trying to convince Congress to officially throw off the shackles of British rule and pass a Declaration of Independence, which as yet has not been written. Their logic is that the colonies need something to fight for and this would do the trick.
Adams is not the best liked member of Congress, as he has been espousing this "half baked independence idea" with loud verbal arguments for quite some time. Franklin suggests a flank attack with Lee proposing the idea to debate the issue. Congress falls for the ruse even though they are all well aware of who is behind it.
It then falls on Adams and his cohorts, in particular Thomas Jefferson, to put pen to paper and actually write the declaration. Jefferson flat out refuses to participate because he is heading home to see his new wife whom he has not visited in six months. When forced to stay in Philadelphia, he develops a case of "libido writer's block" which is finally cured by the arrival of his wife, sent fro by Adams.
The 1776 has been noted as the humanization of an important history lesson, and Near West Theatre nails it with this production. The three-tiered set with five steps, brilliantly designed by Todd Plone, gives much needed room for the actors to move about, keeping the musical from becoming static. The costuming by Melody Walker is period, practical and extravagant, with amazing attention to detail, bringing the show alive.
What differentiates Near West Theatre from many other community theater companies is their spirit of inclusion. Race, gender, sexual orientation, and size are completely ignored; talent is the deciding factor to win the roles. In this production, women are given a host of men's roles and some members of the originally all-white Continental Congress are portrayed by actors of color. The entire cast have spent ten weeks in intensive training and rehearsals run by professionals in the fine arts of acting, singing, dance and movement.
So how does this rag tag bunch measure up? Much like the original congress who had little idea what they were getting themselves into, they far surpass all expectationsthe principals in particular. Peter Bradly plays John Adams of Massachusetts, the pivotal role that stirs the entire pot. He oozes bravado and confidence for this new country. Cherita Miles as Stephen Hopkins of Rhode Island provides the necessary comic relief; without it, the audience would be in for a very long musical. Amanda Bender is most convincing as as Benjamin Franklin of Pennsylvania, the sage of early America.
Every play needs a heavy and Kyle Adman is perfect as John Dickinson of Pennsylvania, the well to do loyalist who has a real love affair with England. The most flamboyant of all the characters is Richard Henry Lee of Virginia, played by Michael Obertacz, who as they say "mugs for the camera" with unabashed delight. He even canters across the stage as if on horseback. Braelin Andrzejewski is a perfect fit as as Thomas Jefferson of Virginia, the author of the declaration, especially with her interaction with Bender and Bradly.
Beau Reddington is Edward Rutledge of South Carolina, the late naysayer fighting for the south to maintain their slave status. Reddington has a fine singing voice for his number as well as a fighting strut. Melissa Vincel's Abigail Adams sparkles as she interplays with her husband, encouraging him while negotiating for the much needed pins for herself and friends in exchange for saltpeter, which is needed for the rebellion. Vincel has the finest voice of the cast. Sami Kennett plays Martha Jefferson, who is quite demure yet very essential in showing the human side of her famous husband.
The production is sharply directed by Cory Markowitz.
For all of us who struggled with names and dates during high school history classes, this show provides faces and personalities we can truly relate to. The multi-gender, multi-racial cast gives us a new perspective and is revolutionary in they way they tell the story of our country's political beginnings. This truly is a show for the times. Come, enjoy, and be enlightened.
1776, through May 19, 2019, at Near West Theatre, 6702 Detroit Avenue, Cleveland OH. For tickets and information, go to www.nearwesttheatre.org or call 216-961-6391.