Sunday, October 9, 2016

Applause! Applause! Review of 1776 at The John W. Engeman Theater at Northport by Dr. Thomas Robert Stevens

This review of 1776 at The John W. Engeman Theater at Northport was written by Dr. Thomas Robert Stevens and published in Volume X, Issue 6 (2016) of the online edition of Applause! Applause!

Music & Lyrics by Sherman Edwards
Book by Peter Stone
Directed by Igor Goldin
Musically Directed by Eric Alsford
Scenic Design by Stephen Dobay
Costume & Wig Design by Kurt Alger
Lighting Design by Cory Pattak
Sound Design by Laura Shubert
Props Design by Kristie Moschetta
The John W. Engeman Theater at Northport
250 Main Street
Northport, New York 11768
Reviewed 10/8/16

1776 opens with John Adams reporting, "I have come to the conclusion that one useless man is called a disgrace; that two are called a law firm, and that three or more become a Congress! And by God, I have had this Congress! For ten years, King George and his Parliament have gulled, cullied, and diddled these colonies with their illegal taxes! Stamp Acts, Townshend Acts, Sugar Acts, Tea Acts! And when we dared stand up like men, they have stopped our trade, seized our ships, blockaded our ports, burned our towns, and spilled our BLOOD! And still, this Congress refuses to grant ANY of my proposals on independence, even so much as the courtesy of open debate! Good God, what in the hell are you waiting for?" John Adams, one of the delegates from the Commonwealth of Massachusetts is rightfully frustrated because it is his state that has suffered the most at the hands of the British. He is the foremost agitator for independence in the Continental Congress. Other delegates, especially from the Southern Colonies don't share his enthusiasm for independency. Some are hoping for reconciliation while others think victory is impossible. (as Samuel Chase, a delegate from Maryland impressively played by Doug Vandewinkel), said, "If we win, we can declare whatever we want!". It was difficult for the delegates to be optimistic regarding the outcome of the war given the hundreds of discouraging dispatches received from G. Washington reporting the disarray, lack of discipline and overwhelming odds faced by the Continental Army. Col. Thomas McKean (Delaware Delegate) stated: "Surely, we have managed to promote the gloomiest man on this continent to head our troops! Those dispatches are the most depressing accumulation of disaster, doom, and despair in the entire annals of military history." (Another delegate said, "The man would depress a hyena.") The action in this play takes place from May-July, 1776 and chronicles the negotiations and votes that led to the drafting and amendment of the Declaration of Independence, and ultimately, a unanimous vote for independence on July 2, 1776. 

The original Broadway production of 1776 opened on March 16, 1969 at the 46th Street Theatre (now the Richard Rodgers Theatre) and closed on February 13, 1972, after 1,217 performances. During its three-year run, it played at three different theatres: the 46th Street, the St. James Theatre (1970), and, finally, the Majestic Theatre (1971). It won Tony Awards for Best Musical, Best Performance by a Featured Actor in a Musical (Ron Holgate) and Best Direction of a Musical (Peter Hunt). 1776 was revived by the Roundabout Theatre Company on August 4, 1997 (in a limited engagement at the Criterion Center) before transferring to the George Gershwin Theatre on December 3, 1997 for a commercial run that closed on June 14, 1998, after 333 performances and 34 previews. Scene Three of 1776 holds the record for the longest time in a musical without a single note of music played or sung. Over thirty (30) minutes pass between "The Lees Of Old Virginia" and "But Mr. Adams." There are many historical inaccuracies in the book, far too many to document here. However, the play does capture the spirit and some of the conflict present among the delegates on the eve of their vote for independence. John Hancock, President of the Continental Congress from the Commonwealth of Massachusetts successfully portrayed by Tom Lucca, broke a tie in favor of requiring the independence resolution to pass by a unanimous vote because he said, "Don't you see that any colony who opposes independence will be forced to fight on the side of England? That we'll be setting brother against brother. That our new nation will carry as its emblem the mark of Cain. I can see no other way. Either we all walk together, or together we must stay where we are."  

Few would select 1776 as their favorite musical of all time. Nevertheless, there is dramatic tension, rising action, interesting dialogue, humor, young love, and a few good musical numbers to keep people's interest. This production at The John W. Engeman Theater at Northport features the best cast I have ever seen perform this musical. The period costumes are amazing as is the set (except the second door where the Continental Congress met in Philadelphia - now called Independence Hall - was for decoration only and did not open). One of the two women in this play is Jennifer Hope Wills, who does a marvelous job playing Abigail Adams (John's wife) during dream sequences when the content of some of their many letters are revealed (John asks Abigail to send him saltpetre, while due to the blockade of Boston Harbor, she asks him for pins). James LaVerdiere does a fine job portraying John Adams as an obnoxious, disagreeable, disliked delegate (when in fact, at this point in history, he was highly respected). John and Abigail sing two songs together, "Till Then" and "Yours, Yours, Yours", while Abigail Adams performs one solo, "Compliments." Ms. Mills is a talented actor with a very strong stage presence. The second woman in the show is Adriana Milbrath, who brings the beauty and charisma of Martha Jefferson to life on stage. One can understand why the relatively shy Thomas Jefferson, expertly played by Michael Glavan, was so in love with her. He never remarried after his wife's death in 1782. Regarding not taking another wife, Mr. Jefferson later wrote, "A single event wiped away all my plans and left me a blank which I had not the spirits to fill up." Supposedly, one of the reasons Jefferson successfully courted Martha was because he played the violin. This is represented in the song "He Plays The Violin", which Ms. Milbrath sings with James LaVerdiere (John Adams) and David Studwell (Benjamin Franklin).

David Studwell is a very lucky actor to have been given the opportunity to play Dr. Benjamin Franklin ("no Venus"). He gets to have fun with the part speaking some of the most profound, insightful, and funniest lines in the play. Some examples: Dr. Franklin: "I wouldn't mind being called an Englishman if I were given the full rights of an Englishman. But to call me one without those rights is like calling an ox a bull. He's thankful for the honor, but he'd much rather have restored what's rightfully his."; Dr. Franklin: "A rebellion is always legal in the first person, such as 'our rebellion.' It is only in the third person - 'their rebellion" - that it becomes illegal."; Dr. Franklin: "Revolutions come into this world like bastard children - half improvised, half compromised."; Upon John Adams' shock that Jefferson was taking his wife to bed in the middle of the afternoon, Dr. Franklin responds, "Not everybody's from Boston, John!"; Upon receiving a note that Jefferson will be further delayed in writing the Declaration of Independence because he was taking his wife back to bed again, Dr. Franklin said, "You know, perhaps I should have written the Declaration. At my age there's little doubt the pen is mightier than the sword."; Regarding his support for independence, Dr. Franklin said, "Never was such a valuable possession so stupidly and recklessly managed than this entire continent by the British crown. Our industry discouraged, our resources pillaged...worst of all our very character stifled. We've spawned a new race here...rougher, simpler; more violent, more enterprising; less refined. We're a new nationality. We require a new nation." Besides being an engaging actor, Mr. Studwell is also an excellent singer, making a strong contribution to "But, Mr. Adams" and "The Egg". In his losing argument to make the turkey the symbol of our new nation, he argued the turkey is "a truly noble bird. Native American, a source of sustenance to our original settlers, and an incredibly brave fellow who wouldn't flinch from attacking a whole regiment of Englishmen single-handedly." In the end, as you know, the eagle was selected even though Franklin thought the eagle was a scavenger. 

Every actor in the supporting cast is absolutely magnificent. I am not one to exaggerate or to give praise when it is undeserved. I assure you there isn't a weak performer or singer in this show right down to Gordon Gray, who plays the Congressional Custodian, and Matthew Rafanelli, who is the Courier. Their rendition of "Momma Look Sharp," which ended the first act, brought many to tears. Jon Reinhold was hilarious as Richard Henry Lee, the delegate from Virginia who introduced the motion for independence. His enthusiastic rendition of the apparently neverending "The Lees Of Old Virginia" (sung with Franklin & Adams) was the hit of the show. Peter Saide as Edward Rutledge (a delegate from South Carolina) pointed out Northern Hypocrisy on the slavery issue when singing "Molasses To Rum," which highlighted the involvement of ships from Boston in the Triangle Trade. Mr. Saide's portrayal of Edward Rutledge as a bit of a dandy and a defender of that "peculiar institution" was extremely engaging and entertaining. As far as group numbers are concerned, "But Mr. Adams" involves Adams, Franklin, Jefferson, Sherman & Livingston where each is trying to pass the quill to another so they wouldn't be saddled with the obligation to write the first draft of the Declaration of Independence. The second impressive group number involves Benjamin Howes as John Dickerson (a conservative delegate from Pennsylvania hoping for reconciliation with England) leading his fellow conservatives in a minuet while singing "Cool, Cool Considerate Man." ("always to the right, never to the left" is a historic anachronism since those terms weren't in use at the time). In the play, there were "more than eighty-five separate changes and the removal of close to four hundred words" from the Declaration of Independence. Many delegates were concerned about offending one group or another (e.g. the Scottish, Parliament). Eventually, John Adams said, "This is a revolution, dammit! We're going to have to offend SOMEbody!"

New Yorkers, in particular, might be interested in Lewis Morris, sympathetically played by Stephen Valenti, who continuously "abstained" courteously on all votes since "the New York Legislature has never sent us explicit instructions on anything." When John Hancock challenged him asking, "What the hell goes on in New York?", Lewis Morris asked, "have you ever been present at a meeting of the New York Legislature?" When Hancock nodded "no," Morris explained, "They speak very fast and very loud, and nobody listens to anybody else, with the result that nothing ever gets done." Lewis Morris was born and raised in what is now the South Bronx in an area his family dubbed Morrisania. When he went ahead and signed the Declaration of Independence despite having no authorization to do so, he pitted himself against his brother, a devout Loyalist and brigadier in the British Army (just as Dr. Benjamin Franklin was estranged from his acknowledged illegitimate son, William Franklin, the 13th and last Colonial Governor of New Jersey). Less than a month after the Declaration of Independence was signed by Lewis Morris, British troops laid siege to Morris' land, looting his Manor, driving away his livestock, and destroying 1,000 acres of woodland. His family lived in exile until 1783.

This production of 1776 at The John W. Engeman Theater at Northport is one of the best you will ever see. It proves that history doesn't have to be boring when it is brought to life on stage. I strongly recommend you see 1776 during its current run which ends November 6, 2016. You can relax beforehand and during intermission in the theater's bar and lounge listening to show tunes and trying out some of the following specialty cocktails ($12.00 each): The G Washington, The Cool, Cool Considerate Cocktail, The Independency, The Bunch Of Grapes, and The Courier. Tickets are $76.00 on Saturday evenings and $71.00 all other performances. The show schedule is Thursdays & Fridays at 8:00 p.m., Saturdays at 3:00 p.m. and 8:00 p.m., and Sundays at 2:00 p.m. (some Wednesday & Sunday evenings are available). To make reservations, call 631-261-2900, go online to or visit the Engeman Theater Box Office located at 250 Main Street in Northport. After the show, you can go to dinner and fight over whether John Adams (UN-alienable) or Thomas Jefferson (IN-alienable) was correct. Perhaps it depends on the context and what exactly it was that was being implied in that particular clause of the Declaration of Independence. 1776 reminds us of the blood, sweat, and tears that were required to give birth to this new nation - these United States of America!  

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