CENTERVILLE — A musical that so often gets poor reviews for being too tedious has become an exciting live history course on the beginning of American independence in 1776 at Centerpoint Legacy Theatre. With music and lyrics by Sherman Edwards and based on a book by Peter Stone and directed by Josh Richardson in this production, I saw a still life congress come to life throughout the long debate over the country’s future.
Richardson does a wonderful job setting the scene with a costumed introduction, giving the audience direction to the “necessaries” with pomp and circumstance. Kristi Curtis’s light choreography that accented each song was comical and enjoyable. However, this is the only part of the show that could use some fine-tuning with a few of the numbers, such as “Cool, Considerate Men” and “The Lees of Old Virginia.” The choreography with switching written letters between husband and wife during “Yours, Yours, Yours” built the unity between John and Abigail Adams, despite distance, as they were close but not touching. I was satisfied to see them hold hands for the last note.
In this musical, the principal character John Adams, played by Todd Wente, is trying to convince the rest of congress to declare independence from Great Britain. Wente was a strong actor, and the frustration he shows with congress is as genuine as his opposite emotions of relief and tenderness when writing to his wife. Though my seats were in the back of the theater, I could still feel the power of his emotional presence onstage, which kept me engaged throughout the painful experience of “CON-gress” as Wente exasperatingly says.
Daniel Sessions played the notable role of Thomas Jefferson. There was meekness in his character at the beginning which boiled into strength through character progression that was remarkable to see. As he and Adams argued over slavery, their conviction brought a fresh jolt to my mind of how wonderful those men truly were at that time period amidst folk who thought of slaves as “property” and not people.
This is a heavily male dominated show with only two women; Natalie Peterson playing Abigail Adams, and Britty Marie playing Martha Jefferson. Both were talented and brought a relief from the masculinity of the show with their singing, dancing, and attractive pastel dresses. Peterson’s vocal range didn’t seem to fit the first number, though the rest of the show her vocal performance was superb. Peterson had a strength she gave to her character that was comforting to see in her interaction with Wente. Marie in “He Plays the Violin,” sang very well, and though the emotional foundation of her character was convincing to me, the comedic message of her song came across smoothly.
The show is serious, yet playfully written. Benjamin Franklin, played by Dave Hill, jokingly replies to Adam’s concerns about their behavior, “Don’t worry John, the history books will clean it up.” Hill has many other moments to be humorous as a lover of drink and women. His leap from a man sick with gout to a sprightly young woo-er of beautiful women was realistic and hilarious.
1776 gives a full range of experience as it moves from a light musical to an intense “12 Angry Men” scenario to deep and thought provoking moments such as “Momma Look Sharp.” Wente was able to mindfully share the message of congress that is even truer today, “It’s impossible if we all stand around complaining about it.”
Despite being just over 2.5 hours and having hardly a set change, the use of lighting and change in the backdrop video display assisted in adding depth to different scenes and songs, including some eerie images depicting slavery during “Molasses to Rum,” which was powerfully sung by Matthew T. Hewitt. The climate of the show was almost immersive, as if I could feel the heat in the congress room while the men were swatting flies, wiping brows, and singing, “Someone open up a window!” Later the lights dimmed to blue with the large full moon displaying on the backdrop, and it felt cool and refreshing from the heated arguments, which kept my interest through some of the more slowly-paced scenes. The message of one very moving song, “Is Anybody There?” sung by Wente, was displayed strikingly on the backdrop as victories such as freedom over slavery, women’s rights, the statue of liberty, space exploration, and more.
If produced before the age of cell phones and gamers, this show could easily keep the attention of a younger audience. As attention spans have shortened, however, I think this is a great show for education for the young and enjoyment for the old. Some tips: listen carefully, get a snack at the concession stand halfway through, dance a little jig on the way back to your seat (as Ben Franklin would on his way to New Brunswick) and you will have an enjoyable night.