Vote yes! Vote yes! Vote for independency! For God’s sake, theatergoers, sit down! And make sure you do it over at Toby’s Dinner Theatre where history comes to life in one of her most striking productions to date. 1776, a revolutionary tale of how the great nation of America got its start is well underway as spring gets started close to the nation’s capitol. Directed by Jeremy Scott Blaustein and Shawn Kettering, this inspiring story is unlike anything ever seen on the stage at Toby’s. A remarkable exploration into the theatrical realm where the dialogue and stories outweigh the song and dance numbers. Rising to the challenge, and soaring through it with patriotic red white and blue colors, the sensational cast starts a conflagration worthy of this nation’s rebellious beginning; a testament to the talent that treads the boards of that stage eight shows a week.
The intimacy of the Toby’s space has always been a wondrous experience for the shows that have crossed over it the 37 years the theatre has been in operation. But never has the intimacy been more poignant and relevant than it is with this show. Submerging the audience into the thick of the heated and labored political debate of our nation’s formation, the unique immediacy provided by Toby’s in-the-round stage, with seats as close as two feet from some of our nation’s greatest forefathers, invites the audience directly into the recreation of the first continental congress. Set Designer David A. Hopkins crafts the likeness of the state attendance and voting board right into the very structures of Toby’s foundation. A unique sliding board, thrust at three angles for all to see, shows the days in congress as they pass as well as the state names which move from “yea” to “nay” with the prod of a long wooden rod. Hopkins works with Lighting Designer Coleen M. Foley to authenticate the floor of congress by hanging a grid of candlelit chandeliers directly over the meeting space.
Foley’s lighting work is perfectly suited for the space, the era, and the feel of the play. Her warm blue glows of the heated outdoor Philadelphia sky echoes under ever window slat while inside the candles of justice burn away loftily from their chandeliers. It’s the moments where John Adams is featured in singing soliloquy where her lighting design is most appreciated. Often bathed in a warm and contemplative amber while the rest of the stage is low lit or blue-bathed, Foley isolates these pensive sung monologues for all to really witness. The lighting combination for the Courier’s number is also quite striking and handled in a similar fashion.
Storytelling has long been an essential element of the performances found on the Toby’s stage, but never before has it been so keenly felt. 1776, being the show that holds the record on Broadway for longest scene without a musical number, puts the integrity of performance ability on the line. Under the sharp and focused eye of Director Jeremy Scott Blaustein, and Co-Director Shawn Kettering, a revolution erupts into practice. The outcome of the nation is well known but there comes a point in the story where the tension is so thick and the constant churning of debate is so heady that one doubts whether or not America will become a nation. Blaustein motivates the cast with zeal; a continual billow stoking the flames of debate and discussion that moves the show along with great fervor.
Blaustein also features as a cameo role in the production, assuming the great country bumpkin persona of Richard Henry Lee. Prancing about at the strutting Popinjay, Blaustein imbues the character with a heaping helping of confidence served warm over his simplistic bucolic nature. As ostentatious as his coat, and almost as annoying as the congress believes John Adams to be, Blaustein leaps about with a giddy certitude during “The Lees of Old Virginia” giving the fluffy number some seriously saccharine and ham-glazed substance that is well worthy of the ovation he receives upon his departure.
There are cameo appearances across the board, whether it’s Toby’s veterans like David Bosley-Reynolds, who plays the proud Col. Thomas McKean of Delaware, or Robert John Biedermann 125 who plays ol’ gripin’ guts Stephen Hopkins, the drunk of Rhode Island. While both roles are rather minor, Bosley-Reynolds and Biedermann make their presences felt and their opinions known throughout the performance. Bosley-Reynolds has the second best accent in the performance, an honest Scottish sound that roars deep in the gut particularly when he blusters after George Read (Thomas Stratton), but softens like a drop of warm whiskey when tending to the ailing Caesar Rodney (Dave Guy.) Biedermann, whose voice is filled with gravel for the role, lives up to the moniker as he growls and barks about looking for rum.
Sweet Jesus, between the flies and the rum, and the cantankerous President of Congress, John Hancock (Lawrence B. Munsey), the congressional custodian Andrew McNair (David James) has his hands full. Never one to pass up an opportunity to give revitalizing life to even the most seemingly inconsequential roles, James makes McNair an honest and active part of the first continental congress. The attention to nuance and detail, often silently executed as both Biedermann and Munsey bark their orders at him, is praiseworthy to the utmost. Munsey, as the surly and impatient president of congress, gives a particularly stoic performance perched at the head of it. Despite his pinched demeanor and rather soured attitude toward the heat and general discontent among the congressmen, when it comes time to deliver poignant words at the end, Munsey succeeds in doing so with honest intent.
The Secretary of Congress, Charles Thomson (Russell Silber) also gives a noteworthy performance, as do Rev. Jonathan Witherspoon (Ariel Messeca), and Lewis Morris (B. Thomas Rinaldi.) While Messeca is only noted for his quaint arrival and later his very polished and poised speech when addressing religion in the declaration, and Rinaldi is only noted for his highly humorous and infamous courteous abstentions, both find flavorful avenues of pursuit in molding their character portrayals accordingly. Silber, who reads the roll call, tallies the votes, and with the highest degree of reverence reads the letters from George Washington at the battlefield, is a fascinating curiosity. While outside of the congress itself, Silber integrates his character into one of the men, as invested and ingrained in the formation of the nation as Franklin, Jefferson, and Adams. Silber even has a moment of vocal glee, a strong start to “Is Anybody There?” which brings the incredible show right into its conclusion.
Musical Director Douglas Lawler tackles the master challenge of how to fit songs into a musical that is less the traditional musical show and more of a debate intense straight play with music that accompanies it. Blending perfect harmonies from the robust and rich voices of Roger Sherman (Chris Rudy) and Robert Livingston (Ben Lurye) for “But, Mr. Adams”, Lawler succeeds in melting these voices into a trio, quartet, and quintet accordingly along with Franklin, Jefferson, and Adams, in that number. Rudy and Lurye have exceptional voices well worth noting for those harmonies alone. Lawler’s biggest challenge is guiding the cast through the uncharted territory of recorded music. (Due to strict orders from Musical Theatre International, a prerecorded track is used in this instance instead of the traditional live Toby’s orchestra) Lawler succeeds with the principal roles in creating harmonious sounds throughout the limited musical numbers featured in the show.
Featured as a mostly silent character plodding in and out dejectedly with missives from the battlefield is the Courier (Matthew Hirsh.) While he remains unaddressed until alone in the hall with McNair (James) and Leather Apron (AJ Whittenberger) when Hirsh’s character finally does deign to speak, his words are powerful. The harrowing sorrow that lingers in his speech as he leads into his song, “Momma Look Sharp,” is evocative. Delivering the most stirring and beautiful song of the show, Hirsh’s songbird voice is pure and innocent, alighting upon the notes with grace and a delicate quiet that truly touches the heart. Blending into one of the final verses in a trio that can only be described as somber bliss, James and Whittenberger fill out the three-chord harmony to perfection; an awestruck ending to the first act.
Notably lacking from congress is the presence of women. Notably present in this show are Abigail Adams (Santina Maiolatesi) and Martha Jefferson (MaryKate Brouillet.) A delicate wisp of a thing from Virginia, Brouillet is a twinkling ingénue that fits easily into Mister Jefferson’s arms. Her voice, lilting and lovely, flows like honey into “He Plays the Violin.” Maiolatesi, known for her belting abilities, showcases her versatility in the role of Mrs. Adams. No less powerful with her handful of duets sang with John Adams, Maiolatesi delivers a sturdy character the integrity of which is second to none. Maiolatesi fabricates the love between her character and her husband’s into palpable tangible expressions during “Yours, Yours, Yours.” Their voices twine together like one romantic block of bliss in that number and “Till Then.” The melancholy that consumes her song with wistful longing for her husband is outdone only by her feisty nature, featured in both songs; a fitting combination for the wife of the most obnoxious man in congress.
History comes with a great many labels, and often villain is tossed around haphazardly as one of those labels. In this case, though the word itself is wrong, the sentiment is felt keenly in both the character of John Dickinson (Darren McDonnell) and Edward Rutledge (Dan Felton.) McDonnell is the spoken word foil to John Adams, sparring question for question and line for line with the leader of independence. McDonnell delivers his biting barbs with sharp jaws. Serving as a canon in the great debate of scene three, McDonnell blasts his aim two fold, first at Adams then at Franklin, never faltering or wavering in his wit-laced eruptions. When he bursts into full on anger, going first verbally and then physical to blows with Adams, it is one of the most exciting moments to light up on the congressional floor. A master with words, McDonnell is gut-wrenchingly ruthless with his verbal delivery.
Felton is handed the task of delivering the most unsavory and unctuous character in all of congress. Edward Rutledge speaks as the voice of the Deep South and when Felton speaks it is both unsettling and unnerving. Mastering the best accent in the show, Felton concocts a southern sound that sends shivers down the spine when he speaks, and his consistency with that accent is flawless. When he speaks, it is not only the accent but the cadence and manner in which he does so that spurns unease. Like slow burning syrup soaked molasses, Felton delivers a simmering serpentine sentiment that lies in wait just beneath the surface of his character ready to strike at a moment’s notice but carefully held in check by his gallant charisma. As if he weren’t terrifying enough in moments of speech, Felton’s character has the most disturbing musical number in the piece, “Molasses to Rum.” Both haunting and mesmerizingly beautiful, in the way that one is fascinated with a trainwreck, Felton becomes some sort of otherworldly entity when that song possess him. Showcasing his vocal prowess and a ferocious range, Felton delivers an intensity that shakes the core of every member of the audience. The most remarkable performance given in the show, second to Adams himself, Felton makes Edward Rutledge a character that will never be forgotten.
Thomas Jefferson (Brendan McMahon) is the backbone of the declaration, being the man whose pen created it. McMahon, while not the strongest of singers, is a dedicated person upon the stage. His eyes tell a great deal of the story that his words cannot. As a mostly silent character, when he does speak the poignancy with which he does deliver his lines is a refreshing and impressive burst. It is his lovely lanky stature that makes him perfect for the role. The physical juxtaposition of his towering slender figure over the noticeably shorter John Adams makes for a hilarious moment during “But, Mr. Adams.” McMahon pairs well with the esteemed Ben Franklin (John Stevenson) and when he does quip wit crackers at Franklin and Adams, his delivery never misses.
Stevenson delivers the epitome of balance in his iconic character. Finding the humor and the wisdom for which Franklin is fondly remembered, Stevenson fills out the role with gusto. When he cracks wise, the jokes are humorous, earning a great many chuckles from the audience. When he delivers sagely advice, it is the most revered and sounds as if a true founding father were speaking the words. In addition to his perfect separation of humor and humanity, Stevenson has a bold basement sound for when he sings “The Egg.” Preceded by his hilarious, albeit rambling, speech about how the great bird of America ought to be the turkey, Stevenson cuts his vocal chops into the number and proves that he is not only a great and talented actor but also a well-rounded singer.
Incredible. There is simply no other word for it. Astonishing, perhaps, but incredible seems to fit best when it comes to describing Jeffrey Shankle’s performance as John Adams. Noted for his song and dance work over the years, Shankle’s portrayal of the bombastic John Adams is a revolution in itself. The most impressive, earnest, and honest acting delivered in his career, Shankle succeeds in giving the performance of a lifetime in this role. No finer a man suited for the character, as all men need a cause to fight for, Shankle has found his with John Adams. Possessing the raw and unabashed fire in his belly, Shankle is the solid pillar of independence upon which the nation was formed. Acting as an incendiary catalyst it is remarkable felicity that presents itself in Shankle throughout the course of the evening. An earnest fire in his core blazes at Dickinson, burns at Jefferson, and blasts at the entirety of congress. With a pure voice that is suited for the role, numbers like “Piddle, Twiddle” and “For God’s Sake, John, Sit Down!” are outstanding. There is a radiant air of obnoxious determination that is delivered unapologetically with fearless conviction. Versatile, gripping, and in every way perfect for the role, whether it’s his firm handle on biting sarcasm, or honest emotions in exchanges with Abigail, enough praise cannot be lauded over his performance. “Is Anybody There” becomes the foundation of his character’s continued perseverance; a phenomenal moment that strikes pure and true straight to the heart. Truly incredible.
Vote yes! Vote yes! Vote to see this show as many times as you can. The talent is at its highest, the storytelling at its finest. A production that would do our founding fathers a great justice; in earnest, they would be proud.
Running Time: 2 hours and 45 minutes with one intermission
To read Part 1 of Inside Independence Hall: An Interview with Co-Director Jeremy Scott Blaustein, click here.