Congress is Unanimous- ‘1776’ is a Hit
Michael Donato is an actor, director, and improvisor that is active in Honolulu’s theatre scene. He is the reviews editor for Hitting The Stage.
Timing is everything. Palikū Theatre could have chosen to not do 1776 the Musical in an election year, to not do it while everyone is still echoing its historical-play descendant, Hamilton, to not do it because our nation is even more fractured than ever with a circus act of a presidential election, or even to not do it in the midst of Hawaiʻi's lowest voter turn out in history (only 34.7 percent of registered voters came out to vote in Hawaiʻi's primary). Yet Palikū Theatre chose to mount this production, and it was a perfect time to do so. Timing is everything.
1776 the Musical is a production that, first off, doesn't have as much musical numbers as a "conventional" musical production would- so don't go looking for songs with scenes interspersed between them in this show of music placed between the scenes. Trust me, it works, and if you don't trust me do trust the amount of awards it has received (including three Tony Awards).
The show follows the Second Continental Congress and the delegates that populate it, focusing on what things are like through the lens of Massachusetts delegate John Adams (Eli Foster). It follows Adams and the delegates he has rallied for independence trying to win over those delegates still not convinced independence was the best course of action for the then-thirteen colonies. This deliberation and action would affect everyone within the colonies, including Adams' wife Abigail (Kate Sarff) and Thomas Jefferson's (Neil Scheibelhut) wife, Martha (Vanessa Manuel-Mazzulo), who both have scenes exploring the humanity of these times and giving the audience a respite from all of the seated and heated proceedings of the delegates. Eventually, this leads to the drafting of the Declaration of Independence, but for the vote to pass it must be unanimous. That is where Adams and his allies must decide what are they prepared to lose for something they've fought tooth and nail for.
Foster takes Adams, who has been colored as an "obnoxious and disliked" and makes him more than that; he makes him human, and that is something that will never cease to be interesting as we the audience see parts of ourselves in his drive and his uphill climb. His performance is layered, nuanced, and strong as he carries the production. Adams' constant voice of reason, Pennsylvania delegate Benjamin Franklin, is played by Gary Morris. Morris, in all of his charm and wisdom, makes me yearn for a mentor that is both caring and disciplined as he is. Scheibelhut, who played Jefferson, the third of Adams' "Independence Team," evened out Adams' passionate bursts with a quieter and much more tempered nature, but surely equally as passionate as the Congress tears through his Declaration in an attempt to satiate the needs of the whole union. Antagonistic delegates John Dickinson, Pennsylvania (Christopher Denton) and Edward Rutledge (Laurence Paxton) served up roadblocks with the kind of performances that the audience loves to hate, thus making them all the more richer. While the wives of Adams and Jefferson only had a couple or so scenes to themselves, Manuel-Mazzulo and Sarff worked their roles well, capturing the different essences that won the hearts of Adams and Jefferson. Rounding out the highlights are two songs which were absolute hits- "The Lees of Old Virginia," led by the energetic and vibrant Jeff Bracket as Richard Henry Lee, delegate of Virginia and "Momma Look Sharp," performed by KoDee Martin, a courier who has seen the harshness of the war and is haunted by what he has seen.
The entire company shines in this production, each their own character, their own representation from history. The costume design compliments these characters so well, and when everyone has their own personal wardrobe that perfectly captures who they are, one must recognize that is no easy feat. Anna Foster in both her capacities as costumer and projection designer (the final five minutes are simply beautiful) really helps elevate this production. Also elevating the production is the set design by R. Andrew Doan and the lighting by Lloyd S. Riford, III. All of these technical elements really helped frame the production in the best way and exceeded all expectations.
I have said a lot in this review, but only because this production has sparked something within me and it has gotten me very excited. Historical theatre is important, especially now, since we seem to be losing sight of who we are as a nation and what we stand for, at least in the light of the looming election. By looking to the past, we as an audience are reminded of what has come before, and that those that have come before us were not that much different- the hope is that we can learn from what they have learned for us. This is one of the reasons this production, and its descendant in historical theatre, Hamilton, have gotten such wide acclaim. Timing is everything. 1776 the Musical runs at Palikū Theatre through September 18. I urge you to go and watch this wonderful slice of American history.