Thursday, March 21, 2019

1776: Theatre Memphis Makes History With a Solid Revival

Posted By on Thu, Mar 21, 2019 at 3:41 PM

click to enlarge 1776.avatar.nologo.jpg
"I have come to the conclusion that one useless man is called a disgrace — two are called a law firm — and that three or more become a Congress.” — John Adams opening remarks in 1776. The musical, not the year. 

Like the nation whose birth it celebrates, 1776 is an extraordinary creation — the most delightful musical stuffed inside the most contentious play, wrapped in an endlessly urgent history lesson more truthy than accurate. It's a miracle, of sorts, famous for containing the longest scene in any musical without singing, choreography, or a single note of music played. Also, like the nation it celebrates, 1776 is complicated, built on enough deception, prioritizing drama over all else, that it's probably a good thing to knock the dust off from time-to-time and re-evaluate.

Cecelia Wingate's known for staging monster musical extravaganzas. What surprised me most about her very fine production of 1776 for Theatre Memphis, was just how conventional it is, erring on the side of magnificent. The lush, 18th-Century costumes are so thoughtfully detailed they often say as much about characters as the actors wearing them. That's saying something given a mostly superb cast. Though it's hardly palatial in spirit, the gleaming, brightly-lit set works at cross purposes, making the emerging nation seem too solid and formidable — less the worn-out crazy quilt with no chance in hell of weathering the coming storm. We hear it's "hot as Hell," in Philly, but take away the fans and complaints, and not much else in the breezy space says so.

It seems critics can't write about 1776 these days without some comparison to its kindred Tony-winner, Hamilton. I won't do that, but will say that between the hotly-paced Hamilton and a faintly iconoclastic interpretation of 1776 staged by The Encores! in 2016, one might hope for a touch more currency and self-awareness.

I'm almost afraid to give John Maness another glowing review. People will think he's paying me. But Maness's growing reputation as a dramatic actor who vanishes into his characters, obscures the fact that he's always been a solid musical theater performer as well. When Hedwig and the Angry Inch finally made it to town, Maness took the title role and rocked it just right. Now older, and more furrowed, his John Adams is a firebrand, full of righteous fury — always just at the edge of caning somebody on the floor of Congress.

Adams' character — a blending of John and his second cousin Samuel — doesn't quite mesh with reality. Though he had adversaries in Congress (even among allies), the man from Massachusetts wasn't universally regarded as obnoxious and disliked until after his presidency. Independence was the popular choice in the year of our show, and Adams was a tireless, vocal advocate.  Maness translates the alleged obnoxiousness into impatience at the edge of impertinence, and, excepting turns by Lydia Hart's's Mrs. Jefferson and Kevar Maffitt's Rutledge, he's seldom the second most interesting thing on stage.

Wingate's 1776 — a story about uniting the American colonies to declare of independence — struggles a bit with antagonists. Though he has been absent from Memphis for a long time, I know Brian Helm to be a fine and committed actor who relishes physically demanding roles. As Dickinson, a patriot whose intellectual reservations are amplified for dramatic purposes, he's the face of opposition. As one of the show's two principal "bad guys," he makes the case for wealth, tradition, and security over independence, leading Congress's anachronistic right-wing through the song "Cool, Considerate Men."

landed on Broadway in 1969, a year after the infamous televised debates between arch-liberal Gore Vidal and arch-Conservative William F. Buckley Jr. On the page, Dickinson's gravitas mixed with cool certitude calls to mind the latter, who once dryly claimed, "It's terribly hard to stand carrying the weight of what I know." Helm's more scheming and excitable interpretation is more reminiscent of radio pundits like the late Mike Fleming, or a stiffer Rush Limbaugh. It makes the debate at the heart of act one less dynamic, and more shrill than it might be, as he seeks to match and top Maness's Adams rather than own him. This less poised depiction yields the floor, and principle antagonist role, to the reliably excellent Maffitt,  who delivers a cooler, more self-sufficient vision of Rutledge, the pro-slavery representative from South Carolina whose eerie, musical lesson in triangle trade makes a case that implicates every man in congress with the shameful practice. But does it also implicate itself? The script? 50-years worth of audiences, swept up in light nationalism? 

Theater Memphis serves up charming, humanizing portraits of America's best known founding fathers like Ben Franklin (Jimbo Lattimore) and Thomas Jefferson (Sean Carter). It does a somewhat better job bringing in lesser known figures like George Washington's messenger and a hard-drinking representative from Rhode Island who never met an idea too dangerous to talk about. As Abigail Adams and Martha Jefferson, Edna Dinwiddie and Hart show two distinctly different ways to keep the home fires burning while the menfolk, "Piddle, Twiddle, and Resolve."  The ensemble is built on solid foundations, and the voices collected for this production blend gorgeously, lifted by a tight orchestra.

 When it comes to critique, it's sometimes said that "everything before the 'but,' is BS." Can't disagree. I'm sure regular readers sense a "but" coming and, of course, they're right. See, 1776 makes a virtue of compromise at any cost, and as we know, the cost was human bondage and chattel slavery. As considerate as the script may be, sounding bells over the struggle for common ground feels off in 2019, as the last campaigns of the American Civil War play themselves out in proxy battles over Confederate iconography. Where some may see currency in these debates, I tend to see continuity, and even affirmation. But — and you knew it was coming — I don't think we need to put 1776 away just yet. If anything, it's probably not revived as often as it might be. But (yes, another one) we know how the story ends. Furthermore, we know where it goes after it ends and where it goes wrong. So maybe in 2019, it might be more interesting to strip 1776 down than to dress it up.

To summarize: Great voices? Check. Good acting? Check. Profound wig game? Double check. Given Theatre Memphis's reputation for razzle dazzle, Ellen Inghram's choreography is uncharacteristically subdued. The acting is top-shelf, from Bill Andrews as John Hancock to Helm, whose questionable use shouldn't be mistaken for bad work. Songs stuck in my head for decades never sounded better, from the lusty, "He Plays the Violin," to the mournful "Mama Look Sharp." Maybe, like the nation whose birth 1776 celebrates, I was just expecting too much.


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