Sunday, May 03, 2015

Spirited '1776' at Toby's


If you think our modern Congress is dysfunctional, you should have been around when the founding fathers of our nation conducted business in the 2nd Continental Congress in the summer of 1776.  Arguments can lead to physical scuffles.  Personal insults and name calling were commonplace including branding a colleague a “landlord” or worse, a “lawyer”!  A delegate from New York had never voted on any matter because he cannot understand what the people of his state are saying.
@hocoarts#
Jeffrey Shankle as John Adams, Brendan McMahon as
Thomas Jefferson and John Stevenson as Benjamin Franklin
Photo: Jeri Tidwell
Actually, you can be around because the hilarious three-time Tony Award winning musical 1776 that puts a human face on these iconic figures is currently playing at Toby’s, the Dinner Theatre of Columbia.  
With music and lyrics by Sherman Edwards and a book by Peter Stone, 1776 the Musical is more of a play with music included (good songs at that) rather than a typical musical whereby the plot is incidental to the score.  A musical comedy would be a more apt description given the reliance on dialogue and banter.

Toby’s production under the co-direction of Jeremy Scott Blaustein (he plays Richard Henry Lee of Virginia) and Shawn Kettering, works beautifully with an incredible attention to detail and precise timing from the predominantly male company. 
Set in steamy, hot Philadelphia in what is now called Independence Hall, the story centers on John Adams and his attempts to persuade his colleagues to declare independence from the British monarchy.  Not only was Adams challenged to make the case, he had to negotiate through hundreds of wording changes as well as to cope with the southern colonies’ desire to maintain slavery.

In the 1776 version of history, Adams was seen as “obnoxious and disliked” with the phrase being repeated a number of times early in Act I to establish the character.  In one of the funnier lines in the show, Benjamin Franklin, who had been suffering from gout, told Adams that his voice is making his toe hurt more.
David A. Hopkins’ superb set design employed the in-the-round cozy confines of the Toby’s stage to the production’s advantage.  Although in reality, there were 56 signers to the Declaration of Independence, 1776 only depicted one to three from each colony.

To convey Independence Hall, the set includes tables with green table cloths to accommodate the delegates, wooden chairs, a podium where the President of the Congress John Hancock sits, feather pens for the delegates, candle chandeliers on the ceiling, a tally board indicating the vote for each colony on the main issues, and windows around. 
Costumes from AT Jones & Sons fit the company in authentic 18th century garb that include canes for the older delegates.  Period coats, waistcoats, cravats, breeches, stockings, hats, and wigs add mightily to the visuals. Hand fans are used to reinforce the oppressive heat going on that summer.


A must-see worthy of a 13-star salute.

 
In this setting, members of the audience are witnesses to the zany proceedings of the Continental Congress, the passion and pettiness from the delegates and the humor that is sprinkled throughout.  Where the issue of independence from England was debated through countless motions, each colony’s delegation had their own sovereignty in mind, which colored the discussions.  To demonstrate their approval on a matter, the delegates tapped their desks or stomped on the floor with their feet or canes as opposed to applause.
In addition to the superb setting, costuming, excellent sound design by Mark Smedley, and effective lighting by Coleen M. Foley, the production is further enhanced by the efforts from the cast, and in particular, the tour de force performance by Toby’s veteran Jeffrey Shankle.  His acting props are on display as he passionately tries to convince his colleagues to vote for independence.

Mr. Shankle’s brilliant comedic timing, movements and delivery during numerous exchanges excel.  Not to be overlooked is his fine singing voice in such numbers as “For God’s Sake, John, Sit Down;” “Till Then,” a lovely duet with his wife, Abigail (Santina Maiolatesi) for whom he whom he pines and sees in a dream; “The Lees of Old Virginia,” an amusing(ly) entertaining number he performs with Mr. Blaustein and John Stevenson (Benjamin Franklin); and a group number “Is Anybody There?” 
Thomas Jefferson, played admirably by Brendan McMahon, was designated to write the Declaration.  He, too, dearly misses his wife, which is a distraction, and Adams asks her to come to Philadelphia so that he could, well, do his husbandly duties and focus on the Declaration afterwards. 

Martha Jefferson’s role played sweetly by Mary Kate Broulliet, allows her to showcase her excellent vocal talents in “He Plays the Violin.”
The musical highlight of the show belongs to Dan Felton as Edward Rutledge, the young delegate from South Carolina.  In the powerful ballad “Molasses to Rum,” Mr. Felton, who sparkled as Jean Valjean in Toby’s production of Les Misérables last year, brings fervor and dazzling vocals to the fore in defiantly challenging the abolition of slavery, which would have scuttled the Declaration had the clause remained. 

Despite Mr. Felton’s extraordinary solo, only half the audience applauded the night that this performance was reviewed ostensibly because of the message in the song, which advocates the triangular slave trade and points out northern hypocrisy.  The slavery issue is clearly the most dramatic point in the show’s storyline.
Though an orchestra conductor is listed in the program, there is no live orchestration to back up the vocals. The theatre does not have the space to accommodate the number of instruments required by the agreement to present the show.  Therefore, recorded music is used.

Toby’s stalwart Lawrence B. Munsey romps through his role as John Hancock who presides over the 2nd Continental Congress.  In a lusty performance, Mr. Munsey amusingly displays his annoyances and impatience with the delegates using an abundance of sarcasm. 
John Stevenson as Benjamin Franklin portrays a grandfatherly goofy character in the first half of the show with comedic proficiency, but Franklin demonstrates wisdom when it became crunch time to get the Declaration drafted and signed. 

The remainder of the cast is too numerous to name but they all performed superbly.  Notable among them, however, are Ariel Messaca, Chris Rudy, Darren McDonnell, Scott Harrison, Andrew Horn, David James, Ben Lurye, Russell Silber, Will Emory, and Matthew Hirsh.
1776 is not your conventional musical as evidenced by the fact the show does not end with a song or a kiss but instead the increasing din created by the clanging of the Liberty Bell as each signature is affixed to the document.  Not everyone may be interested in the arcane procedural matters of formal gatherings like the Continental Congress.  But Toby’s fabulous cast and crew make such matters comical and entertaining and a must-see worthy of a 13-star salute. 
Running time: Approximately two hours and 45 minutes with an intermission.

1776 plays through July 5 (go figure) at Toby’s, the Dinner Theatre of Columbia, 5900 Symphony Woods Road, Columbia, MD 21044.  Tickets may be purchased by calling 410-730-8311or visiting online.

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