Friday, June 15, 2007

History as Drama: Keegan Theatre's '1776'

I'm playing a bit of catch-up now. Here is my review of Keegan Theatre's 1776, now in production at the Church Street Theatre in Washington:

History as Drama:
Keegan Theatre’s ‘1776’
Rick Sincere
Metro Herald Entertainment Editor

Early in his best-selling book about the pivotal year of the American Revolution, 1776, historian David McCullough writes:
It was [the legislature] as theater, and gripping, even if the outcome, like much of theater, was understood all along. For importantly it was also well understood, and deeply felt, that the historic chamber was again the setting for history, that issues of the utmost consequence, truly the fate of nations, were at stake.
McCullough was referring, not (as one might think) to the Continental Congress’ deliberations about the Declaration of Independence, but of the British Parliament’s reaction to King George III’s first major report on the rebellion in the colonies, months before the patriots/traitors in Philadelphia declared that “these united colonies are, and of right ought to be, free and independent states …”

Reflecting retrospectively on historical events, most of us assume that they were inevitable. What we often forget is that the people living through those events had no sense of inevitability. For them – like for us living today – the future was uncertain, however hopeful and optimistic they permitted themselves to be.

Peter Stone and Sherman Edwards’ 1969 musical play, 1776, now in a new Keegan Theatre production at the Church Street Theatre near Dupont Circle in Washington, has that sense of uncertainty at its core. Although we know, 230 years on, the outcome of the debates, discussions, and deliberations through that hot Philadelphia summer, the drama of the situation – Congress as theater, as it were – grips us through two hours, making us want to find out just how this conflict will find satisfactory resolution.

1776 is an odd musical. Its structure is unique in musical theatre; it begins with a 10-minute musical scene that relaxes into a long, 30-minute sequence without music that can stand on its own as a one-act play. Its cast includes 23 men and only two women. A major character appears near the beginning, sings a rousing number, and then disappears for the rest of the play. The central character is, by his own admission and with the musical agreement of others on stage, “obnoxious and disliked.”

On paper, 1776 looks like a sure failure. Yet what doesn’t work in theory works marvelously in practice. In concept, 1776 looks like a bore. On stage, 1776 is lively, intelligent, and scintillating.

This is particularly true under the brilliant direction of Keegan Theatre’s Mark Rhea, who understands the potential pitfalls and shortcomings of 1776 and turns them into assets.

He starts by taking advantage of the full surface of the stage in the narrow and cozy Church Street Theatre. 1776 uses the deepest parts of the Church Street stage; in fact, having seen several productions there in the past, I was never aware that there was so much space available until now.

The spatial depth permits Rhea to arrange and rearrange his cast into tableaux that frame the action. It also allows him to assign each of the supporting actors a personal space that helps define his character – something already supported by Stone’s book and Edwards’ lyrics, which extract from a historical mass individuated personalities of the 20 Founding Fathers portrayed.

1776 was not written with hit songs in mind. There’s not a lot of hummability in the score, aside from Martha Jefferson’s “He Plays the Violin” and the ballad “Mama Look Sharp,” neither of which are essential to advance the action. Most of the score is closer to recitative, designed to establish character, express philosophical (!) points of view, and move the plot forward.

Because of this, the prerecorded, synthesized musical accompaniment (an “innovation” that caused me to wince at a community-theatre production of Camelot a few weeks ago) was barely noticeable and hardly objectionable, especially since the singing (so to speak) took center stage.

A successful production of 1776 rises or falls on the performances of its principals, and in Keegan’s case, it rises. Mick Tinder’s John Adams -- who is, as noted, “obnoxious and disliked” by his fellow statesmen – is solid, focused, stubborn, and discerning. Robert Leembruggen’s Benjamin Franklin is impish, flirtatious, and aware of his own celebrity. James Finley seems a bit wet-behind-the-ears as Jefferson, but then again, so was Jefferson.

Even for Americans who think they know the story of the Declaration of Independence, few are aware of the opposition to it. (It is widely thought that, during the Revolutionary War, one-third of Americans supported independence, one-third were loyal to the Crown, and one-third were indifferent.) Personifying this opposition in 1776 is the character of John Dickinson, a delegate from Pennsylvania, here played by Kevin Adams. Adams nails the part. His Dickinson is erudite, determined, and plainspoken.

One casting error may be found in Edward Rutledge, who was the youngest signer of the Declaration of Independence (at just 26). The Rutledge of 1776 has the closest thing to an eleven o’clock number (“Molasses to Rum to Slaves”) when, as a delegate from South Carolina, he objects to the condemnation of slavery in Jefferson’s draft declaration. Rutledge’s objection looks to be an impassable hurdle until Adams agrees to a compromise. The casting problem is that Dave Jourdan – as good as he is in the role – is at least 20 years older than the historical Rutledge would have been.

That aside, there are so many good performances in 1776 that it seems unfair to single out just a few.

Perhaps it was just fortuosity, perhaps advance planning, but Keegan Theatre’s 1776 closes its run on the Fourth of July. I can’t imagine a better way to celebrate Independence Day – or the days leading up to it – than by strolling over to the Church Street Theatre to see the show.

1776, by Peter Stone and Sherman Edwards, continues through July 4 at the Church Street Theatre, Thurday-Saturday at 8:00 p.m.; Sunday matinee at 2:00 p.m.; added performance Saturday, June 23 at 2:00 p.m.; no performance Sunday, June 24; Special 4th Celebration Performance Wednesday, July 4, at 2:00 p.m. Ticket prices: $30 general admission, $25 students (with ID) and seniors (60+). To reserve tickets: call 703-892-0202, ext 2 or email to

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