John Adams, singing his Federalist heart out, practically has to create the United States by sheer force of will in the Heritage Theatre Festival’s “1776.” The real Adams may deserve such credit, at least partially, but one imagines fewer people got to hear him express himself with a full orchestra.
Heritage, whose donors include The Daily Progress, has put all its eggs in one basket with this single-show season, and that show walks a fine line between accurate-ish history lesson and musical lark. Nothing if not well intentioned, “1776,” is going on tonight through Saturday at the Culbreth Theatre, and its $40 ticket investment yields fine entertainment results.
Striking poses you might very well have seen on your money, this cast of 25 men and two women is be commended for taking a familiar story — the writing and signing of the Declaration of Independence — to a Charlottesville audience tuned like a pitch pipe to colonial verisimilitude. The result could have been just a couple of steps above a school pageant (let’s be honest, the score isn’t amazing), but actors like Roger E. DeWitt as Adams and Matthew C. Scott as John Dickinson do an excellent job of convincing us there’s a real blood-and-misery war going on, just off stage left.
And what a treat it must be playing Benjamin Franklin; Evan Bridenstine (scene-stealer alert No. 1) gobbles up most of the play’s bon mots. His wig may look more fake than those of characters who are actually supposed to be wearing wigs, but it is undeniably baller to be introduced as “inventor of the stove.”
A sweltering Philadelphia summer and the Continental Congress are our setting and the representatives of the colonies therein bicker and banter about everything from slavery to whether or not the window should be open. Those inclined to such comparisons are welcome to draw parallels to later legislatures (or, as director Robert Chapel pointedly said before curtain, “other august bodies”), but this is one theatergoer who’d rather just watch the story at hand.
That’s particularly true when Edward Rutledge (Jonathan Elliott Coarsey, scene-stealer alert No. 2) sings about how waist-deep the would-be nation is in the trafficking of human property. Or when a courier played by Gavin Rohrer (scene-stealer alert No. 3, and more from this actor, please) closes Act 1 with an emotional aria that balances out all the intellectual philosophizing.
Clocking in at more than three hours, “1776” is not without its faults. For just one example, DeWitt and Amaree Cluff (as Abigail Adams) both have terrific voices, but they blend like oil and water, which would be bad news for one duet, let alone three or four.
But most of what DeWitt does is talk, eloquently and fluidly, and you can just believe he’s talking the colonies into statehood. “For God’s Sake, John, Sit Down,” the Congress sings, with gentlemen’s chorus harmonies worthy of Gilbert and Sullivan, at the very top of the show.
Thank heavens John stayed standing.