You don’t often see the musical “1776” presented in community theater. Drawbacks include its cast of a couple dozen men and the period costumes and sets required. It’s a huge undertaking.
Yet, there isn’t a musical too big for tiny Lake Country Playhouse to handle. This one features not only a stellar cast of two dozen, but some handsome period costumes and wigs, plus a rich set allowing ample space for all the representatives on the tiered stage. Images of actual sites projected onto the curtain added to a sense of “being there.”
The play chronicles John Adams’ fight to get all representatives of the 13 colonies to agree to a Declaration of Independence from English rule during the sultry summer of 1776 in Philadelphia.
Adams is described as “obnoxious and disliked,” which comes through in the rousing opening number, “Sit Down, John.” The show is a wonderful, easily digestible history lesson, giving us a peek at the characteristics of these early leaders – Adams’ garrulousness and tenacity, Franklin’s wit and wisdom, Jefferson’s quiet strength and clarity. We get to know them personally as well – the tender love stories of Adams and his wife Abigail, and Thomas and Martha Jefferson.
Director Rebecca Schilling has assembled an outstanding cast, but none better than the three portraying the central figures – James Skiba as Adams, Marty Graffenius as Franklin and Noah Chudy as Jefferson. Skiba portrays Adams with fiery passion and energy, which is contrasted with Graffenius’s Franklin, who has an easygoing nature and ready wit. Graffenius has a marvelous ease delivering lines such as, “What are you staring at? Haven’t you ever seen a great man before?” The repartee between Skiba and Graffenius is especially enjoyable.
Chudy gives Jefferson a serious demeanor and carries himself with import. A real plus is how closely the trio resemble their historical counterparts in height and age, with the lean, stately Jefferson looking down on his peers.
Musical highlights include “The Lees of Virginia,” featuring Peter Garton as Richard Henry Lee, who cleverly touts his family’s roots with adverbs. “But Mr. Adams” is another fun piece, featuring Skiba, Graffenius and Chudy, as well as Jeffrey Seelig and Mitch Haycock. In his small role as the Courier, Jake Koch delivers a moving “Mama Look Sharp,” describing a mother’s search for her dying son on a battlefield, while Noah Maguire chastises the northern colonies for their stance on slavery in “Molasses to Rum.”
Rob Carroll as John Dickinson, Adams’ nemesis in the Continental Congress, provides a feisty sparring partner for Skiba’s Adams, while Jeff Anderson gives the heavy-drinking backwoodsman from Rhode Island, Stephen Hopkins, lots to laugh at.
Anne Elise Richie, as Abigail Adams, and Cayla Anderson, as Martha Jefferson, offer some balance in the male-dominated show. Richie has a mature mezzo voice as she tenderly intones her longing for her husband. Cayla Anderson is charming and engaging as Jefferson’s young, pretty wife.
This cast provides many moments of levity to a very weighty subject, yet the show creates plenty of tension and drama as the men try to forge a consensus.
Music director Catherine Pfeiler elicits pure, forceful sound from the cast, each character intoning with conviction and giving clarity to all of Sherman Edwards’ clever lyrics – which manage to rhyme words like “Pennsylvania” (mania) and Connecticut (etiquette). The six-piece orchestra off-stage has a good sound but could have been louder. Ami Majeskie’s simple choreography is crisply and solidly executed.
The commitment of this cast in creating memorable, relate-able and believable characters and of this crew in creating top-notch elements -- lighting, costuming, set design, lobby décor – elevates this show to a high level, capturing the spirit of the birth of America in “1776.”
If you go
Who: Lake Country Playhouse
When: Through July 23
Where: 221 E. Capitol Drive, Hartland