1776 (Review)

Footlighters offers a workmanlike production of a unique musical

1776 isn't your typical Broadway musical. It’s a re-enactment of the Second Continental Congress in the days leading up to the severing of the formal ties between the U.S. and Great Britain. The cast is comprised of historical characters such as John Adams and Ben Franklin as well as a chorus of lesser-known people.

Composer-lyricist Sherman Edwards, a New York City high school history teacher, brings this unique take on the founding fathers to life complete with singing, dancing and much joking around, but he retains enough insight and intensity to make it strangely compelling.

It’s not an easy show to pull off. Written primarily in short segments, private wish-fulfillment scenes take place among the major characters and some long-winded debates within the congress itself. Thus when Adams privately loses faith in the ability of congress members to act, he meets Franklin behind the scenes, who proposes that the politically correct thing would be to get a Virginian to come up with a proposal for independence — cuing in the excitable Richard Henry Lee and the rollicking song-and-dance number “The Lees of Old Virginia.”

It’s not a bad formula. Play a comic scene against a serious one, especially if you fold the entire play into believable characters with real historical problems, allowing your characters to drop their guard occasionally so they can appear to be human just like us.

In the current Footlighters production, Ben Franklin (Wayne Kirsch) is surely the most likable character: His serious principles are generally disguised by a witty exterior, which in turn disguises the fact that he’s almost always right. Kirsch understands the need to underplay this knowing character.

A pivotal character is John Dickinson (Dana Kisor), a delegate from Pennsylvania who holds up the declaration until the very last minute. He has ties with the British crown and a great deal of sway with other delegates. Kisor makes the most of Dickinson’s impassioned monologues, as the playwright reminds the audience that many members of this congress didn’t want independence from Great Britain.

John Adams (Gary G. Rogers) is depicted as the engine behind the drive for independence. He’s arrogant and disliked but possesses a fierce determination to create a new country.

Rogers has the vocal talents as well as the conviction needed for the role, but from the outset he doesn’t seem frustrated enough with this congress. He seems more concerned with Adams’ precise articulation of the lines than he is with natural, straightforward and decisive speech. As a result, much of the conflict in the play is lost.

This is certainly a workmanlike production and contains a number of memorable musical numbers, not the least of which is the musical lesson on the slave trade, “Molasses to Rum,” masterfully sung by South Carolina delegate Edward Rutledge (Jon Vater). But director Michael Morehead lets too many opportunities slip away in this production, not structuring the rhythm inherent in the script and letting too many scenes and musical numbers just happen without the requisite intensity of interior climaxes.

1776 is presented by The Footlighters at the Stained Glass Theatre (802 York St., Newport) through Feb. 15 . Buy tickets, check out performance times and find nearby bars and restaurants here.
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