By Joanna Brady
I doubt many other towns in the U.S. the size of Key West have the talent available to stage 1776 to the same standard of excellence as the current production at The Waterfront Playhouse.
With 25 seasoned actors and vocalists and 9 musicians involved, it is certainly one of the biggest and most demanding shows ever mounted in any of our theaters. Astonishingly, we have the resources to do it; and to do it well.
1776, the musical, distills the myriad events and conflicts leading up to the Declaration of Independence and the birth of a nation—our nation—into a superb play in two acts. While the story had been dramatized before, in the hands of Sherman Edwards and Peter Stone, 1776 became a legendary multi award-winning Broadway musical. It is now a classic. Staging it here was surely a daunting task; casting alone had to be a Herculean challenge.
As our school-books tell us, where Britain was concerned, the 13 American colonies belonged to them and the colonists owed allegiance to King George III of England. Attacks on the king’s troops were an act of treason punishable by hanging. The colonies, however, considered themselves 13 sovereign states. It was time to declare independence.
The very act of drawing up the Declaration of Independence was treasonous, and not all our Founding Fathers were keen to risk the gallows. Some were wealthy and liked the status quo. Others were reluctant to let go of their cultural ties to England. Those who were ready, the revolutionaries, met with opposition from conservative loyalists in Independence Hall that hot summer in Philadelphia.
After days of wheeling and dealing, an approved draft of a declaration was unanimously approved by all members of the Congress on July 4th. How such agitators as John Adams (played by David Black), Benjamin Franklin (J.B. McLendon) and Thomas Jefferson (Rock Solomon) managed to shmooze, cajole, bully, and finally, convince all of the Continental Congress members to score one for liberty makes for an exciting story.
David Black, who is on stage the whole time, is terrific as the feisty John Adams. Described by everyone as ‘obnoxious and disliked’, he orchestrates the signing, and it is like herding cats. Their wrangling is punctuated with brilliant numbers by the ensemble, and songs by Black, McLendon, Solomon, Nathan James Gay (as Lewis Morris), Dean Walters (Roger Sherman), Jeffrey Harwell (John Dickinson), Trey Forsyth (Robert Livingston), and Jack Agnew (as the custodian).
A proposition to end slave ownership nearly scuttled Jefferson’s first draft. The riveting solo where slave-owner Edward Rutledge (Matt Hollis Hulsey) of South Carolina berates the northeastern states for their hypocrisy and complicity in the slave trade, “Molasses to Rum” is perhaps the most memorable piece, belted out with passion and authority.
The talented Laurie Jones Breakwell (Abigail Adams) appears endearingly for three numbers as part of John Adams vision, his yearning to be home with her. The only other woman in the cast is Stephanie Sander (Martha), who, as Jefferson’s wife, appears in Philadelphia for a conjugal visit, singing beautifully and dancing with Black and McLendon. A courier, Xavier McKnight sings one solo, which is stirring and sad, in a sweet young voice full of promise.
Not that sadness prevails in this wonderful play. The drama is nicely balanced with plenty of lighter moments and the whole story crackles with hope, despite an opposition mired in negativity. At times, the dialogue is hilarious, and some of the characters, notably John Wells (Stephen Hopkins) play their comedic roles to the hilt. Mathias Malhoff, (who delighted us in Inspecting Carol) is very funny as Richard Henry Lee. He sings, he does a vaudeville vamp, and makes the most of his amusing lyrics.
This is a very timely play, relevant to the divisive bickering we’re subjected to today. Dressed as they are in modern clothes, the debates could be from a segment on C-Span. Some things never change!
The astonishing thing about artistic director Danny Weathers is not that he reaches so high, but that his reach is always sure; unfailingly successful. The talents of virtuoso Vincent Zito as musical director and conductor (as well as keyboard player) adds to the magic of the production. Kudos to the Waterfront’s scenic designer Michael Boyer, whose work is consistently brilliant; to Carmen Rodriguez and Leigh Hooten for the costumes and props; and to John Jaworski for lighting design, and Trish Manley’s stage management.
1776 is an evening of great entertainment for people of all ages. Reserve your tickets now. Ends Feb. 4. Box office number is 305 294-5015. Or go to Waterfrontplayhouse.org. Tickets are $55.
(Joanna Brady is a Key West writer, author of the historical Key West novel, The Woman at the Light, published by St. Martin’s Press.)
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