Of Thee I Sing

We all know the basics of howthe Declaration of Independence turned out, especially this time of year whenwe celebrate that historic document on the Fourth of July. But do we reallyknow much about the men who fussed and debated in Philadelphia in 1776 to

click to enlarge Rodger Pille as John Adams in '1776' at Incline Theatre
Rodger Pille as John Adams in '1776' at Incline Theatre

Critic's Pick

We all know the basics of how the Declaration of Independence turned out, especially this time of year when we celebrate that historic document on the Fourth of July. But do we really know much about the men who fussed and debated in Philadelphia in 1776 to craft the words that set in motion the course of American history? Sherman Edwards and Peter Stone’s 1969 musical (a Tony Award winner, by the way) portrays the members of the Continental Congress as very human, very passionate men.

And they were all men. The musical 1776 requires a cast of about two dozen strong male singers and actors to portray our founding fathers. They were a querulous bunch with opinions from all points on the political spectrum, not too different from today’s politicians, in fact.

This production at the new Incline Theater has rounded up fine cast of performers, led by Rodger Pille as feisty Boston attorney John Adams, the flash point in the back-and-forth argument about whether the colonies should declare their independence from England. The show’s opening number, “For God’s Sake, John, Sit Down,” announces immediately that we will meet a crowd of very human characters.

Pille is especially powerful as the incendiary, often furious man who admits to being “obnoxious and disliked.” His emotion-filled singing and convincing acting make Adams’ portrait the show’s most memorable performance. Pille creates an Adams who is steadfast in his beliefs, but when he must, he bows to the wisdom of Benjamin Franklin and the eloquent phrasing of Thomas Jefferson. We also see his human side in his sung exchange of warm-hearted letters with his devoted wife Abigail, beautifully sung by Allison Muennich.

The show is full of believable portraits. Franklin (Bob Brunner) is a pragmatist who frequently dozes off, while erudite Jefferson (Matt Krieg) keeps to himself and yearns to reunite with his lovely wife Martha (Lindsey Franxman). John Hancock (Mike Hall) is the Congress’s surly president, concerned as much with heat and flies as he is with maintaining order.

John Dickinson (Brett Bowling), a Royalist who wants to maintain order, is adamantly opposed to proclaiming independence, and his desire to preserve the status quo (“Cool, Cool Considerate Men”) sound eerily like political positioning still evident in 2015. Southerner Edward Rutledge (Justin Glaser) from South Carolina heatedly argues that the practice slavery cannot be eliminated (“Molasses to Rum”); his rationale is the forerunner of today’s debate over the Confederate Battle Flag.

The musical personifies American history in some very dramatic ways. Even though we know the outcome, we are caught up in the arguments and the music. The production’s strong voices and Matthew Wilson’s sharp direction underscore the messages the show’s creators had in mind. “My country ’tis of thee, sweet land of liberty, of thee I sing.” Those stirring words are an accurate summary of this production, just the second on the new Incline Theater’s stage.

Brett Bowling’s clean but effective set design for the chamber demonstrated the versatility of the Incline’s stage. (And, yes, Bowling the designer is also the actor playing the arrogant John Dickinson.) For the concluding moments, as the Declaration is finished, the men’s signatures are projected on a blue scrim behind the action, a powerful reminder of the historic moment and the names and actions of those remembered so vividly after more than two centuries.

Bravo to Cincinnati Landmark for staging this rousing production.


1776, presented by Cincinnati Landmark Productions at the Warsaw Federal Incline Theater, continues through July 26.