2012-07-06 / On The Town
Patriotic play sings
Skyway Playhouse takes on history
PLAY REVIEW ‘1776’
Watching the Camarillo Skyway Playhouse’s production of “1776,” I was struck by how much the actors portraying the delegates at the Second Continental Congress resembled those in the play “Twelve Angry Men.”
It’s interesting how much drama can be infused in a setting where a multitude of people with different personalities, goals and backgrounds must come to a unanimous consensus: in this case, whether or not to declare independence from Britain at the start of hostilities in the Revolutionary War. That is the gist of this historically based show, which won a Tony Award for Best Musical of 1969.
“1776” is not so much a musical as it is a play with musical interludes. In fact, in one stretch during Scene 3 there is a 30-minute gap between musical cues, a Broadway record. Composer Sherman Edwards’ sparsely delivered songs are incorporated to lighten the mood of the serious goings-on, as the “13 angry colonies” try to outmaneuver one another in deciding whether or not to declare their independence from Britain.
Even though we know quite well the outcome of their deliberations, the drama created by book writer Peter Stone is taut and believable, as historical figures are made human without resorting to buffoonery.
Much of the burden of “1776” falls on the main character of Massachusetts delegate John Adams, who spearheaded the idea of declaring independence. Phil Wieck’s Adams speaks with the pompous formality of “Seinfeld’s” J. Peterman (John O’Hurley). His exasperated frustration with his nitpicking colleagues is tempered by frequent imagined talks with his wife, Abigail (sensitively played by Masaya Palmer).
Wieck’s splendid singing voice is heard throughout the show in nearly every song, and he carries this burden majestically. It’s as fine a performance as one can ever hope for in this show.
Nearly matching Wieck’s excellence is Michael Chandler’s Benjamin Franklin. Thirty years Adams’ senior, the 70-year-old Franklin was the wizened conscience of the Congress, a homily spouting, bemused pixie. He spends much of the first act resting his gout-ridden foot on a stool, except when he is joyously prancing around, singing “The Lees of Old Virginia” with Wieck and the exceptional Randy Crenshaw as Richard Henry Lee.
Evan Proffer has one of the more difficult roles in the show, that of the taciturn 33-year-old Thomas Jefferson. The Congress’ most skilled—but disinterested—writer, Jefferson yearns to be with his young wife, Martha (Aimée Hoff). Proffer gives a stately and wonderfully nuanced performance as the man who is railroaded into writing the Declaration of Independence.
Brian Robert Harris is superb as Pennsylvania’s John Dickenson, the antagonist of the show, who maintains that any opposition to the British crown is treasonous. Harris’ singing voice is not as strong as that of his cast mates, and his lead on “Cool, Cool Considerate Men” is one of the show’s few weak moments.
Anthony Rivera gives a powerful and emotional solo on “Molasses to Rum,” as his character, South Carolina’s patrician Edward Rutledge, chides the Northern delegates as hypocrites for their opposition to slave trade.
Of the many outstanding performers in the large cast, Jeff Berg stands out as the court’s secretary, Charles Thomson, virtually singing every word in his mostly spoken script, most notably the somber, pessimistic dispatches from a disillusioned “G. Washington.”
Susan T. Calkins leads the exceptional four-piece orchestra with tastefully arranged impressions of the musical style of the period.
The show plays through Sun., July 8.