Yeas vs nays

History repeats itself with 1776 at the Dayton Playhouse

By Jacqui Theobald

That old cliché, “Those who ignore history are doomed to repeat it,” may have instead a pleasurable re-acquaintance when The Dayton Playhouse brings the figures of the Declaration of Independence to life beginning May 6 running weekends through May 22. Anyone who may have missed this durable piece of theatre will have the opportunity to catch up with the stirring musical that brings 24 of Dayton’s best male singers to the Playhouse stage. They are joined by two women, equally strong.

Tina McPhearson knowingly directs the big 1776 cast, music and lyrics by Sherman Edwards and book by Peter Stone. Ron Kindell is musical director, Allie Eder handles the choreography.

Then as now, two very different points of view and passions prevailed. About half the Continental Congress was committed to independence; about half remained loyal to Britain, in real life. They had some prolonged sessions as July in Philadelphia got hot and hotter, in many ways. There are numerous quotes that resonate today.

Conflict and disagreement in politics didn’t just happen recently. Our United States of America was born from differing opinions and eventual compromise. The loyalists to Britain are headed by John Dickinson of Pennsylvania, powerfully played by Tim Rezash. They are opposed by the pro-independence men, Franklin (Richard Young), Adams (David Shough), and Jefferson (Chris Tuell).

John Hancock, (Charles Larkowski), presides over this second Continental Congress that sees many questions come to the floor, almost always met with a contentious tied vote. Among the actual quotes: “I ain’t never heard, seen nor smelled any issue so dangerous it couldn’t be discussed.” Stephen Hopkins of Rhode Island, played by John Falkenbach.

Absorbing 1776 history is painless because the signers who were members of the second Continental Congress are right here, complete with arguments and personal quirks. It’s easy to be caught up in the power and pleasure of the music. If “Sit Down, John,” the opening anthem, doesn’t just get in your head and stay there, then another of the memorable pieces may.

“Piddle. Twiddle and Resolve” is Adams expressing his frustration at the many delays and excuses that prevent the vote being cast on independence.

Lewis Morris played by Greg Dixon brings dignity to the fact that New York always abstains, ‘courteously,’ because they have no legislative instructions. He comments, “Have you ever been to the New York legislature? They speak fast, they speak loud, no one listens, nothing gets done.”

John and Abigail Adams (Sherri Sutter) are longing for each other while he’s in Philadelphia, she in Massachusetts. They sing “Till Then,” voices beautifully blending in the poignant love song of devotion. The lyrics are from their actual letters to each other.

Gary Watts playing Richard Henry Lee sings “The Lees of Old Virginia,” one of the cleverest songs.

Franklin and Adams know Jefferson’s their best writer, and could compose a powerful declaration. Tom’s missing his wife, so they bring her to Philly to surprise him. Martha, (Maggie Carroll) sings “He Plays the Violin.” After their night together, Jefferson produces a masterpiece. There are touches of humor throughout, some a bit ribald.

Periodically the Courier (Andrew Spoon) brings a message from G. Washington on the battlefield, always gloomy and needing supplies. Spoon sings beautifully the heart-tugging “Momma Look Sharp” about dead soldiers.

With force and passion Shawn Hooks as Edward Rutledge of South Carolina sings one of the most powerful songs, “Molasses to Rum,” highlighting the focus on the products of the South and the North’s dependence on them and the issue of slavery.

That’s the sticking point, and the eventual compromise.

The final vote comes down to one man, James Wilson of Pennsylvania, who does not want to be remembered by history as the person who denied the unanimous agreement on independence. He doesn’t want to be remembered at all, and he seldom is. He finally votes yea.

The closing scene is dramatic, beautifully illuminated by Light Designer Anita Bachman. Sound designer is Bob Kovach. Melanie Brenner, stage manager, maintains order and sanity between the large cast, complicated available space and the 14-person orchestra backstage.

Set Designer Chris Newman has devised chambers similar to the historic Continental Congress’s in Philadelphia, using multipurpose flats that move smoothly, almost choreographically to indicate other scenes.

Costume designer and maker of these period costumes is Kathleen Carroll who has a particularly personal connection to 1776. She remembers seeing it about middle school age and deciding she wanted to become a history teacher. And she did! 1776 motivated her right through a Bachelor’s degree, a Master’s and seven years of teaching American history.

Richard Young, a slender man (he’ll be padded to play Franklin) delights in the wit and wisdom of the character. He’s inspired by a friend, now deceased, who did 1700 performances of Franklin in the National Touring Company. The friend’s Connecticut widow may attend.

Some families enjoy singing old musicals like 1776 to pass hours in a car. Others always celebrate July 4 with the 1972 film.

Not every word of the multi-prize-winning 1969 stage musical is absolutely verifiable, but the truth of the characters and the enormity of what they did was and is essential to us all. It’s okay to be moved by patriotism.

The Dayton Playhouse performance of 1776 runs May 6-22  at the Dayton Playhouse, 1301 E. Siebenthaler Ave. in Dayton. Advanced reservations are advised as total sell outs are anticipated. For tickets or more information, please visit daytonplayhouse.com or leave requests at 937.424.8477 for a return call.
Reach DCP theatre critic Jacqui Theobald at JacquiTheobald@DaytonCityPaper.com.

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Reach DCP theatre critic Jacqui Theobald at JacquiTheobald@DaytonCityPaper.com.

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