A perfect musical for July

Franklin ( Edward Kuffert) Adams (Sean Michael Barrett)) and Jefferson (Justin Smith) sing about the birth of the United States of America in 'The Egg. ' (Photo courtesy of MadKap Produection
Franklin ( Edward Kuffert) Adams (Sean Michael Barrett) and Jefferson (Justin Smith) sing about the birth of the United States of America in ‘The Egg.’ (Photo courtesy of MadKap Productions))

3 stars

A fun way to renew acquaintance with the founding of the United States of America and learn more about the significance of July 4 is to see “1776” at Skokie Theatre.

The musical with book by Peter Stone is a fictionalized account of the goings on that led the delegates of the Second Continental Congress to eventually, unanimously vote for Independence on July 2 and approve the Declaration of Independence document on July 4, 1776. Just don’t expect a fast-paced “Hamilton” style musical.

While “1776” also boasts the Tony Award for Best Musical (1969), the music and lyrics by Sherman Edwards paint the dithering and arguing by the delegates with a brush dipped in sarcastic-toned ink.

The audience knows how the story ends but many watching director Wayne Mell’s  superb cast portray their roles of Founding Fathers have likely forgotten how many of these representatives to Congress would rather discuss mundane items than vote on breaking ties with Great Britain – and that was even though the colonies were already under attack by the British.

In “Fiddle, Twiddle,” Sean Michael Barrett as Massachusetts delegate John Adams disparagingly sings how Congress  “piddles and twiddles”  and “nothing ever gets done.” Sound familiar?

Reports show that this was true. But don’t take Adams’ personality in the musical as fact. For the sake of having a driving main character, Adams is painted as obnoxious.

Indeed, the show opens with “For God’s Sake John, Sit Down,” a humorous song that shows off how well the cast’s voices blend as a chorus.

CoolMen Cool Men – Mark Anderson, Ryan Morton, Sean Caron, Timothy Wolf, Jeffrey Luksik, Scott Spector (MadKap Productions photo)
CoolMen Cool Men – Mark Anderson, Ryan Morton, Sean Caron, Timothy Wolf, Jeffrey Luksik, Scott Spector (MadKap Productions photo)

Some of the story is based on and uses memoirs and letters by the people depicted here.  Adams actually did express his frustration with the proceedings to his wife, Abigail, who is well-portrayed by Gretchen Kimmeth but needed a” mic” for audiences in the back to hear her sing.

Then there is “Cool, Cool, Considerate Men,” a minuet led by Sean Caron as Pennsylvanian delegate John Dickinson. Choreographed by Marianne Brown, it cleverly puts across the message about a group that always leans to “the right, never to the left” to protect wealth and property.

Dickinson, a staunch loyalist bent on petitioning King George for reconciliation. is joined in the minuet by Jeffrey Luksik as Edward Rutledge (SC), Ryan Morton as Robert Livingston (NY), Timothy Wolf as Lyman Hall (GA)  Mark Anderson as James Wilson (PA), Ethan Carlson as George Read (DE) and Scott Spector as Joseph Hewes (NJ).

Kudos go to Andrew Buel as Richard Henry Lee who “delighted-lee” and “happy-lee) sang and danced to “The Lees of Old Virginia” along with fellow pro-independence delegates Franklin and Adams. Lee was sent home to Virginia to get the OK to vote pro.

Kudos also go to Joe Lewis the courier from Gen. Washington who sings “Momma, Look Sharp,” a heart-wrenching plea of a fallen soldier.

Others delegates who played a part balancing pro-independence with the anti votes are Kyle Burch as Thomas McKean (DE), Tom Campbell as Samuel Chase (MD), Michael Dwiggins as John Witherspoon (NJ), Darryn Glass as Stephen Hopkins (RI) and Steve Zeal as Caesar Rodney (DE).

Edward Kuffert, Andrew Buel, Sean Barrett doing 'The Lees of Old Virginia.' (MadKap productions photo)
Edward Kuffert, Andrew Buel, Sean Barrett doing ‘The Lees of Old Virginia.’ (MadKap productions photo)

Aside from Adams, the main players are Edward Kuffer who does a terrific job portraying Pennsylvania delegate Benjamin Franklin as a bon wit who always has “a better way” to express thoughts and Justin Smith is delightful as Virginia delegate Thomas Jefferson who would rather go home to his bride, Martha, a role delectably acted and beautifully sung by Emily Ann O’Brien, then write the Declaration document.

A mesmerizing action was Secretary Charles Thompson (Kevin Wiland) changing the date each day as the Congress got closer to July 4. The Committee of Five chosen to draft a document explaining the move to independence is composed of Adams, Franklin, Jefferson, Livingston and Massachusetts delegate Roger Sherman (Stephen Bromfield).

In the musical they all convince Jefferson that he writes better. During the voting to accept the document which in the fictionalized “1776” gets somewhat confused with the historical voting for Independence timetable, changes are made to make it acceptable to all the delegates.

What’s amazing about the Skokie Theatre production is how designer Patti Halajian’s costumes transformed 2019 into 1776. Basically they were the props.

Another amazing aspect of this production is that Mell managed to fit all the people in the show comfortably onto a small stage representation of a chamber in Philadelphia’s Freedom Hall.

If the final scene seems to be a tableau of a famous painting it’s probably because it’s loosely based on John Trumbell’s  “Declaration of Independence.”

DETAILS: “1776” is at Skokie Theatre, 7924 Lincoln Ave., Skokie, through July 21, 2019. Running time: 2 hours, 30 minutes with one intermission. For tickets and other information call (847) 677-7761 or visit Skokie Theatre.

Jodie Jacobs

For more shows visit Theatre in Chicago

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