Heritage Theatre Festival’s 1776 is like a long version “School House Rock” episode on the signing of the Declaration of Independence. But be warned, you may learn more history than just the late 18th Century in this well produced, solidly directed, and keenly performed production. The timeless theme of a dysfunctional Congress is broadened by social concerns of the era of the show’s origin and the coordination of HTF’s production with the 250th anniversary of the city of Charlottesville.
John Adams (Roger DeWitt, left) and Ben Franklin (Evan Bridenstine, right) discuss how to convince a reluctant Congress to vote for independence in Heritage Theatre Festival’s production of 1776. (photo by Mike Bailey)
The show begins on a warm day in May of 1776 as the Second Continental Congress meets in Philadelphia. A frustrated John Adams (Roger E. Dewitt) who is itching to start a revolution against a tyrannical King George III, grouses about the delegations’ lack of cooperation. These guys can’t even resolve whether or not the windows should be open or shut. (Good thing our current representatives function better, right?) It is during the opening number, “Sit Down, John” that creator’s Peter Stone and Sherman Edwards hint that this play is far from a reverent homage to our founding fathers. In fact the beauty of 1776 is that it gives the modern audience a glimpse of the egos, agendas, bargains and bribing indicative of governing bodies. The negotiation process is so well orchestrated in the script that even though the audience is certain of the ending, one is emotionally engaged in the twists and turns of the action.
In its day, 1776 was also a platform for instigating conversations about issues that were relevant in 1969, such as the peace movement, the sexual revolution, and the civil rights struggle. Today’s contemporary elements emerge via debates about war vs. peace, a silly amount of bedroom jokes and a poignant song, gorgeously rendered by actor Jonathan Elliott Coarsay as Edward Rutledge of South Carolina, about the evils of the slave trade.
Though Virginia pride may have been a slight influence in securing the affections of the audience, Matt Joslyn’s good ol’ boy, Richard Henry Lee, and Joshua Miller’s Thomas Jefferson were definitely crowd favorites. Under the skilled guidance of director Robert Chapel both men are depicted as viral and talented, symbols of Virginia’s important role in the Independence movement. Hoots and hollers from the audience punctuated Joslyn’s vigorous rendition of “The Lees of Old Virginia” (performed in flawless Virginia accent) while Joshua Miller’s tall, calm, collected Jefferson was a pleasing contrast to DeWitt’s appropriately agitating Adams.
The production is lovely with Tom Bloom’s clean, classic set, Dorothy Smith’s distinguished costumes, gorgeous lighting by R. Lee Kennedy (no relation to the Virginia Lees) combined with Chapel’s capable direction and spot-on musical Direction by Greg Harris. The one flaw of the show and this production is a poorly choreographed dance number during what seems to be a pointless song, “He Plays the Violin.” The song neither adds to the action nor establishes anything important about any of the characters DeWitt and Evan Bridenstine (Benjamin Franklin) take turns dancing couples style (quite out of fashion during the late 1700’s) with beautiful actress, Marija Reiff (Martha Jefferson) who lacks grace and was flat on the final note of the song. Despite this annoyance, the rest of the show is wonderful. Particularly moving is the sweet chemistry and strong song deliveries between Amaree Cluff (Abigail Adams) and DeWitt.
1776 is an entertaining way for all generations to celebrate our local, national heritage and brush up on American History. And who knows, maybe even inspire a conversation or two about our political system and how we as “The People” might like it to work.