Musical presents our nation’s founding

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Michael Toscano

John Dickinson (played by Darren McDonnell), a solicitor and politician known as the “Penman of the Revolution,” fights with John Adams (played by Jeffrey Shankle) in a scene from the musical 1776. The musical retelling of the birth of the United States is playing at Toby’s Dinner Theatre through July 5.
Photo courtesy of Toby’s Dinner Theatre

Toby’s Dinner Theatre in Columbia may be rushing the July 4th holiday a bit with its presentation of a history lesson put to (not enough) song — the classic musical 1776. But it will be performed right through the 5th of July, so you’ll have the chance to see this slightly fanciful look at the cobbling together of the Declaration of Independence as the holiday itself approaches. 

1776, written by Peter Stone with songs by Sherman Edwards (and no, you don’t have to know who they are), has been with us since 1969 and remains one of the most frequently performed musicals in this area.

It begins with a light look at the Founding Fathers (and two Founding Wives, not Mothers) that inexorably grows in intensity until reaching its conclusion on the fourth day of July in 1776 when, after years of labor, these fathers delivered a country.

More music and women needed

It is not a perfect show, befitting the less-than-perfect union it celebrates, perhaps. The biggest flaw: there is a very long stretch in act one with no music to break up the occasionally dense and expository dialogue. The conversations and negotiations explore the intricate maneuvering that allowed 13 colonies with different cultures and values to forge a united mission.

It is important that this material be fully presented, but it is always something of a surprise that the writers did not break it up a bit more. When properly staged, however, it will hold your attention well enough until things pick up again. Even though we know how it will turn out, there is built-in suspense to be exploited before getting to what can be an intensely moving finale. 

Another awkward part of the show’s structure is that there are only brief appearances by the two female characters, Abigail Adams (Santina Maiolatesi) and Martha Jefferson (MaryKate Broulliet), the wives of two future presidents, John Adams and Thomas Jefferson. So we have about two dozen male cast members working their way through Edwards’ score without much in the way of dance or chorus numbers to rely on.

There’s a bit of old-man soft-shoe when John Adams (Jeffrey Shankle), Thomas Jefferson (Brendan McMahon) and Benjamin Franklin (John Stevenson) get together. And South Carolina delegate Edward Rutledge (Dan Felton) hops atop some of the furniture during his fervent song calling for slavery to be retained in the new nation.

But mostly, it’s designed as a spartan production with little in the way of visual spectacle, relying on the very human story behind the history to keep us captivated.  

So it’s really up to the director to keep things moving, allowing for proper dynamics in the storytelling. And the drama can be importantly augmented with the proper stagecraft, in terms of set, lighting and sound design.

The best that can be said about this is that Toby’s has done a workmanlike job managing the constraints of a theater-in-the-round presentation.

Set designer David A. Hopkins necessarily gives us little to look at. The Philadelphia chamber is reduced to randomly scattered small desks at which the delegates to the Continental Congress sit, slouch, drink and argue. 

That cheats us of one of the clever openings often utilized on traditional stages. In many of those productions, the delegates are initially seen as stiff figures in an “oil painting,” who come to life before our eyes as flesh-and-blood men. And when the play concludes with the signing of the Declaration of Independence, they recede back into the “painting.” It can be a very effective and affecting set, but unfortunately, it is impossible to pull off on a round stage such as at Toby’s.  

Stellar casting

That said, directors/choreographers Jeremy Scott Blaustein and Shawn Kettering have a strong cast in place.

Shankle, as Adams, is one of Toby’s most reliable workhorses. With a strong voice and presence, he can be counted on to deliver an outstanding performance, and he does so here, despite being softer than the usually flinty character we see in this pivotal role.

John Stevenson is fun as Franklin, played a tad broader than necessary, but with a vibrant authority that suits the role. Shankle and Franklin together onstage anchor the show with their warmth and bearing.

Toby’s newcomer Brendan McMahon gives us 33-year-old Jefferson as a truly golden boy, rather ethereal in both aspect and expression, his silky voice adding a tender burnish to his songs. It’s almost too bad it’s the curmudgeonly Adams and not this elegant Jefferson who gets to twirl Martha Jefferson around the floor in the show’s most graceful choreography, the waltz number “He Plays the Violin.” 

But the directors have not managed to deal effectively with the musical desert in act one; the pacing lags. And they have not paid attention to the dynamics of the final “signature” scene, where seamlessly integrated movement, sound and lighting are required to make the most of the moment. It’s an opportunity lost. 

The big act two song, the forceful “Molasses to Rum,” is also seriously compromised, a victim of the poor sound system. Its singer, Daniel Felton, provides the richest characterization of the show as South Carolina’s Edward Rutledge, a cunning manipulator. His presence in the deliberations is a constant slap of realism as he holds the birth of the nation hostage to defend slavery, the “peculiar institution” of his beloved South. 

But his impassioned accusation of hypocrisy and shared sin by the North as well as the South in “Molasses to Rum” is reduced to histrionics as he leaps about the furniture. Many of the words he is avidly singing get lost in an unpleasant mélange of incomprehensible sound. 

Quieter moments work better. Maiolatesi’s exquisite voice is nicely paired with Shankle’s robust baritone in their duet, “Yours, Yours, Yours.” What it lacks in sensuality, it makes up for in affectionate flirting.

Likewise, Matthew Hirsch is compellingly poignant in the gripping “Momma Look Sharp,” as his young courier introduces the politicians to the harsh reality that their actions are paid for in blood.

With direction lacking flair (and the stage lacking the “painting” effect), the final moments ticking toward our first Independence Day don’t live up to their full potential in this production.

But the material — indeed, the history — is vibrant enough that it remains impossible not to be moved by the courage on display and the realization that much of what we hold dear a couple of centuries later was created in such a human fashion: chaotic, compromised and conflicted, but ultimately a triumph.

1776 continues through July 5 at Toby’s Dinner Theatre, 5900 Symphony Woods Rd., Columbia.

The show runs seven days a week with evening and matinee performances. The doors open at 6 p.m. Monday through Saturday for dinner prior to the evening performances, which start at 8 p.m. On Sundays, the buffet opens at 5 p.m. for the performance that begins at 7 p.m. Doors open for brunch Wednesdays and Sundays at 10:30 a.m., prior to matinee performances, which begin at 12:30 p.m.

Reservations are required. Ticket prices range from $39.50 (for children under 12) to $58 (depending on which performance is selected). Ticket prices include buffet dinner or brunch, tea and coffee. Specialty drinks and desserts are extra, and tips to the actor/waiters constitute much of their pay.

For reservations and more information, call (410) 730-8311 or visit www.tobysdinnertheatre.com.

Comments

Did you even see this show?

So... I've seen this production twice now, and Mr. Felton definitely does not leap about on any furniture. There would have to be furniture for him to leap up on in order for that to be the case. And as far as his words and their audibility... Might I suggest turning up your hearing aid... Or getting a new one. You keep comparing this particular production to other productions and the actors in it to other roles, neither of which are relevant to the performance they are currently giving.