Sunday, July 10, 2011

1776 Rings True at Glendale Centre Theatre

L to R: Jeff Drushal (Thomas Jefferson), John Butz (Benjamin Franklin) and Peter Husmann (John Adams)
Photo credit: Tim Dietlein

It has been 235 years since the members of the Continental Congress signed the Declaration of Independence and established the United States of America, and 42 since a musical based on the historical event opened on Broadway. 1776 by Sherman Edwards (music & lyrics) and Peter Stone (book) would eventually win three Tony Awards, including Best Musical, and capture the hearts of many a musical theatre-loving patriot.

Glendale Centre Theatre’s production of 1776 is a summer delight, from the opening picture of the Congress engaged in heated debate to the final chilling portrait with the Liberty Bell tolling in the distance. In between, director Todd Nielsen and company provide a fascinating look at the humanity of the men who were part of this most important moment in history.

There are many strong performances among GCT’s cast of twenty-six. Peter Husmann is thoroughly enjoyable as John Adams, never letting up on the man’s single-minded focus on independence. He is the center of this world, anchoring the other characters and events as they revolve around him and I couldn’t help but notice how effective the parallel was in this production staged in the round.

Jason W. Webb as John Dickinson is quite the silver-tongued adversary for Adams and Jeff Drushal plays Thomas Jefferson with the quiet intensity of a man who knows the gravity of his appointed task – that of writing the actual document. He may be a man of few words, but he also plays the violin, as sung by his young wife, Martha (charming Michaelia Leigh), a dichotomy that makes way for some humorous moments when she comes for a visit.

John Butz’s Ben Franklin is more low-key than I’ve seen before but Stone’s writing is so full of situational humor and frank one-liners that he holds his own among some of the other more outspoken characters. Other favorites include George Champion as John Hancock, Danny Michaels as Charles Thomson, Mario DiGregorio as Thomas McKean, and a beautifully grounded Victoria Strong as Abigail Adams. Her series of letter duets with Husmann are high points of the show as she pits her request for pins against his urgent demands for saltpeter. By the time they sing "Compliments," their final exchange, your heart will swell with abject pride. If you are at all prone to sentiment, you may even find yourself blinking back the tears.

The remaining members of the large cast each have their own featured moments and musical director Steven Applegate capitalizes on the ensemble’s rich sound to set the tone of the show in the powerful opening number, “Sit Down John.” Lavish costumes and wigs by Angela Wood and Glendale Costumes make the period complete.

Though the signing of the Declaration of Independence may seem the unlikely subject of a musical comedy, this more-than-worthy Tony Award-winning musical makes for a thoroughly enjoyable night out at the theatre. (Note to patrons: Act I is longer than your normal first act of a musical so plan accordingly.)

1776 runs through August 13th at Glendale Centre Theatre. For tickets and more information go to or call 818-244-8481.

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