Looking Back At Our Beginnings

There could not be a more appropriate time for a theater company to produce the 1969 Tony Award-winning Best Musical “!776.”

Whether by design or happy coincidence, this is the time South Bend Civic Theatre has chosen to present the Sherman Edwards/Peter Stone depiction of the struggles of the Second Continental Congress as members debated the question of liberty.

Comparison with today’s contentious congress shows we have made less than acceptable progress.

Under the direction of Chuck Gessert, “1776” is the perfect vehicle to inspire at least a minimal inspection of how we got to where we are today — and why we are increasingly unable to solve our problems like “gentlemen.”

“1776”opened Friday evening in the Wilson Theatre where an impressive accumulation of veteran and novice talent portrayed at least a portion of the historically memorable delegates.

1776  South Bend (IN) Civic TheatreThe characters are important figures in the history of the United States and, although their relationships many not be exactly as portrayed in Stone’s award-winning script (dramatic license, you know), the result of their interactions — arguments, agreements and compromises — is exactly as it should be.

According to Edwards: “These men were the cream of their colonies. … They disagreed and fought with each other. But they understood commitment, and though they fought, they fought affirmatively.”[

Key words being “commitment” and “affirmatively.”

Led by an excellent Ted Manier as Congressional “gadfly” ,John Adams of Massachusetts, the seemingly disparate group “Piddle, Twiddle” and avoids making a decision on the question of “independency” as the fly-filled summer drags on in Philadelphia’s Independence Hall.

Standing with Adams are wiley Benjamin Franklin of Pennsylvania (Frank Quirk), inventor and statesman with an eye for the ladies; Roger Sherman of Connecticut (Michael Ball) and Robert Livingston of New York (Zach Gassman). All decline the invitation to write a declaration (“But, Mr. Adams”) while focusing on Thomas Jefferson of Virginia (Tucker Curtis), who eventually puts down his violin and puts quill pen to paper..

1776  South Bend (IN) Civic TheatreIn the “loyal opposition” are equally strong delegates. Leading the group of “Cool, Cool Considerate Men” are John Dickenson of Pennsylvania (Steve Chung) and Edward Rutledge of South Carolina (Mark Toma), both determined to stay loyal to the crown.

As the debates co tinue, it is clear that those for the proposition will have to clear a number of hurdles, not the least is that a unanimous vote will be needed for it to pass.

From the first sight of Adams pacing in frustration outside the chamber (“Sit Down, John”) to the final compromise that would shape history, “1776” offers a dramatic — and humorous — insight into the deals that made this country.

The participants in the South Bend production deliver their historical characters with enthusiasm and, possibly, with some insight into the real individuals.

Viewing the strengths and weaknesses of all, makes for a theatrical history lesson that is enjoyable at best. Richard Henry Lee (Art Kopec) is hilarious-lee challenged lyrical-Lee while Franklin never misses the opportunity to drop another Almanac-worthy saying.

Chung is most impressive as the unswerving Dickinson and leads his constituents in a well-executed gavotte. Torma pulls out all the vocal stops sardonically challenging Adams with the show-stopping “Molasses to Rum.”

1776  South Bend (IN) Civic TheatreThe very painful realities of the conflict are obvious in the frequent messages from General Washington, delivered by a Courier (Kevin Boucher) who describes the close-to-home war in “Mama Look Sharp.”

“1776” obviously is by, for and about the male delegates but, as everyone knows, behind each is a formidable female. Only two are included in this telling, Abigail Adams (Heidi Ferris) and Martha Jefferson (Elizabeth Buckman). Ferris delivers a sturdy and sensible pre-Revolution wife, supporting her husband with good advice and much needed supplies. (When not on stage, Ferris heads for the balcony and discharges her offstage duties as music director.)

The lighter side is depicted by Manier, Quirk and Curtis as they debate the choice of an avian symbol for the new country in “The Egg.”

Assembling a cast of 26 (24 men) is a daunting task for any theater, let alone one that requires a number of them just to enter, sit on stage and exit on cue. The entire ensemble deserves applause!

Special notice to Craig McNab as terminally ill Caesar Rodney, Rob Newland as feisty Scot Col. Thomas McKean, Daniel Grey as congressional secretary Charles Thompson whose primary task is reading The General’s dispatches, and Gary Oesch as Stephen Hopkins who tempers politics with rum.

For the most part, the vocals are excellent, ensemble and individual, and I wished Edwards had included more of them in Stone’s libretto which definitely is dialogue-heavy.

The scenic design by Ann Davis works well and the costumes and lighting maintain the mood. The wigs, however, are rather mix-n-match and a number are less than attractive.

The fact that everyone knows where this portion of the story ends does nothing to detract from the chills that accompany the eventual signing as the liberty bell rings out.

Politicians today could stand to review this epis
ode in our history and remember that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery.

‘1776” plays through May 1 in the Wilson Theatre at South Bend Civic Theatre. Running time: 2 hours 45 minutes (with intermission). For performance times and reservations, call 234-1112.