Regional Reviews: San Jose/Silicon Valley
While the above descriptions have a depressingly contemporary ring to them, they are actually right out of the script of Peter Stone (book) and Sherman Edwards' (music and lyrics) 1969 Tony-winning Best Musical 1776, a dramatization of the Continental Congress's final month leading up to the eventual signing of the Declaration of Independence. That history unfortunately repeats itself becomes all too obvious in what turns out to be a timely production by South Bay Musical Theatre of this much-produced, almost fifty-year-old gem.
1776 focuses on the efforts of the bellicose, pushy, and generally considered obnoxious (at least in this telling) John Adams as he tries to persuade his colony-representing colleagues to vote for independence from the British crown. Tim Reynolds immediately fits the bill for the role as he trumpets in piercing clarity his call for " Vote yes ... Vote for independency," while the rest of his colleagues in harmony sing for him to "Sit Down, John." With fiery eyes, fierce flailing of his arms, and a reluctance ever to be silent and listen patiently to others, Mr. Reynolds' Adams commands the stage with an almost overwhelming presencein just the way we imagine the real John Adams might have done.
But this John also has a much softer sidealthough still persistent and somewhat stubbornas seen whenever he converses through written letters with his wife Abigail (played melodically and with appealing personality by Sasha Motalygo). Their duets ("Till Then," "Yours, Yours, Yours") allow both actors to demonstrate their individual, rich tones that together emote an emotion and connection most married couples would envy.
The first act of 1776 has several perennial crowd-pleasers due to clever lyrics full of puns and alliterations as well as tunes that are catchy and memorable (e.g., the aforementioned "Sit Down, John," "Piddle, Twiddle," "But, Mr. Adams"). But as is often the case, in this production the one that really brings down the house is "The Lees of Virginia," where Ben Franklin and John Adams are joined by Richard Henry Lee in a number full of vaudeville-like antics. Bringing a bellowing baritone voice and a bombastic cowboy demeanor that would fit nicely into Annie Get Your Gun, rather-short-in-stature David Mister is a giant of a performer in the role of Lee.
In a large cast of twenty-seven where only two roles are called for women, director Walter M. Mayes has made a brilliant call in filling almost half the overall roles with females who play the famous and not-so-famous men sweating through the sticky hot, fly-infested summer of 1776 Philadelphia. In the case of Benjamin Franklin, for example, Terri Weitze not only has the expected body shape, dimpled chin, and full cheeks to play the old coot's part, but she also delightfully portrays the sometimes tottering but other times spry, prone-to-dose but quick-to-quip, and overall liked-by-all old sage plagued by gout in his big, bandaged toe. And, her deep-for-a-woman but light-with-wit "male" voice brings an automatic smile not only in Ben's quick retorts, but also in her fine singing.
Where the casting of women for men's parts especially pays off is in the second half's sung lament ("Momma, Look Sharp") as a young courier describes a friend's mother as she looks for her son's body after the Battle of Lexington. In this production, two common workers of the CongressMcNair and Leather Apronjoin the young courier in a trio to sing the mother's sad resolve of "I'll close your eyes, my Billy, them eyes that cannot see, and I'll bury you, my Billy, beneath the maple tree." That these three men are here actually played by women (Samantha Borthwick, courier; Gwendolyne Wagner, McNair; Ashley Faus, Leather Apron), with their female voices singing in pained, beautiful harmony together, adds much poignancy and meaning to an already emotional song about the terrible costs of any war.
In the several other productions of 1776, one number that sometimes just does not work well and seems to divert the musical in ways not intended is "Molasses to Rum," in which Edward Rutledge of South Carolina accuses his Northern colleagues (especially Bostonian John Adams) of massively profiting from the South's slavery trade through their shipping industries. However, in this production director Mayes and Steve Allhoff as Rutledge have created the evening's most impactful, memorable moment. Mr. Allhoff takes his smooth-talking, slow-moving Southern drawl and thunders forth with a deep baritone singing voice that is as rich as it is startling. Looking at John Adams, he asks, "Molasses to rum to slaves, who sail the ships back to Boston laden with gold, see it gleam?" before declaring in a damning voice strong, "Hail slavery, the New England dream!" But what is most shocking and difficult to watch while also fantastically produced is when this aristocratic, Southern gentleman becomes a vicious, whip-snapping auctioneer and recreates the slave market that feeds eventually the New England coffers. (This particular number is further enhanced by the sound design of David Mister and Dan Singletary as well as the lighting design by Michael Glenn Muñoz.)
Among this large cast, not all singing voices are equal or completely up to par, but overall there are, as has been noted above, several that are quite outstanding (also include Samantha Hildebrandt with her flute-like soprano voice as Martha Jefferson in "He Plays the Violin"). However, a number of actors do shine is in their smaller, quirky, non-singing roles as they create idiosyncratic personalities of the congressional delegates, including the thick-accented Scotsman Colonel Thomas McKean of Delaware (Beverly Hansberry), the rum-loving codger Stephen Hopkins of Rhode Island (Allen Siverson), and the rotund Samuel Chase of Maryland prone to be eating rather than listening (Robert Weisman).
Valerie Valenzuela has choreographed some fun numbers throughout but particularly scores in the precisely danced minuet "Cool, Cool Considerate Men" as the conservatives move as one highly coordinated unit, "to the right, ever to the right, never to the left." Stephen Wathen's set clearly calls to mind our images of Independence Hall while Sylva Chow's costumes and Gwyneth Price's wigs deck out the players in the long, braided coats, obligatory canes, and powdered hair we all expect to see.
This production shines best when the songs of Sherman Edwards are the focus. Where it sometimes drags is in the book's valleys in between, where the repartee and debate begins to bog down to a pace just a tad too slow with a few too many pauses and silhouetted moments. This is particularly true in act one where at one point the drought of sung numbers seems to go on and on.
That said, there is much to enjoy in South Bay Musical Theatre's 1776, and there are several lasting memories to be gained from the more serious numbers that are quite outstanding in their direction and implementation. And there is also the discovery that some of the frustration many of us feel today with our own Congress perhaps has roots deeper than we thought in our nation's history.
South Bay Musical Theatre's production of 1776 continues through February 18, 2017, at the Saratoga Civic Theatre, 13777 Fruitvale Avenue, Saratoga, CA. Tickets are available online at www.southbaymt.com or by calling 24 hours a day 408-266-4734.