What exquisite timing.
Just as the sometimes contentious election season ends, Stage West Community Playhouse opens the award-winning Broadway version of our country's break with England, 1776, a musical dramatization of the creation of the Declaration of Independence, continuing weekends through Nov. 23.
It's a strong reminder that the founding of our nation, like the recent election, didn't happen easily, quickly or without rancor, and that it took months of talk, talk, talk and myriad compromises to get the final version of that famous document into being.
The musical debuted in 1969, but its themes of the horrors of war and of slavery seem more relevant today than they did even then. No matter one's political proclivities, it's impossible not to squirm and/or cry when South Carolina's Edward Rutledge (an imposing Chris Fickley) sings of the hypocrisy of those who condemn slavery while either owning slaves themselves or profiting from the slave trade, in Molasses to Rum.
That song and the poignant description of a bloody battlefield by the young Courier (an innocently plaintive Jacob Rice), Momma Look Sharp, are two of the soberest moments of the musical (hint: take a hanky). The third is the sonorous tolling of a bell as the members of Congress put their very lives on the line by signing the "treasonous" declaration against King George of England.
Director Barbara Everest has once more assembled a stellar cast and crew to tell this timeless story that is, arguably, the do-not-miss show of this theater season.
The mood is set in the lobby, where stand a replica of the Liberty Bell and a drummer in Revolutionary garb tapping a drum, and continues in the theater itself with a subtly lighted scrim curtain displaying the signatures on the Declaration. Todd Everest's two-level set allows better viewing of the 25-member cast, who mainly sit at their desks throughout the play, but would have been even better if the risers had risen even more (though that might have been a burden on some of the more mature cast members).
The heart of the production, of course, is the cast, and it is here that Everest was blessed with a fine turnout at auditions that let her choose just the right person for each role.
At the top is Wayne Raymond as the combative, principled John Adams, who pushes for a genuinely perfect union, but finally consents to an incomplete agenda that excludes the banishment of slavery, which he correctly predicts will one day tear the nation asunder.
Raymond's clear voice and articulation make the long passages of exposition understandable and easy to follow. For decades, Raymond has labored unseen in the orchestra pit, but after this performance he may be in demand even more on the stage.
The ever-dependable Dalton Benson makes a fine Benjamin Franklin, the randy inventor-philospher-statesman whose good humor softens the sharp edges of the more impatient and abrasive Adams.
George Dwyer, a reliable comedy actor, shows an altogether new side of his talents as an elegant Thomas Jefferson. Dwyer modulates his voice and his body language to show the many sides of this phenomenal man: gifted writer, pragmatic politician and, yes, lusty husband.
Peter Clapsis effortlessly steals his scenes as the irascible, rum-swilling Stephen Hopkins, the Rhode Island delegate who was an early advocate for independence and a staunch supporter of Adams.
Matthew Veasey is appropriately aloof as the conservative John Dickinson, Adams' main rival and the leader of the Cool, Cool, Considerate Men, who lean to the right, never to the left (incidentally, the late Richard Nixon convinced the makers of the movie version to omit this song, though it was later reinserted into the DVD.
Many performances are also noteworthy: David Stenger as the opinionated congressional custodian; Ken Van Wagoner as the cautious New Jersey delegate-minister; William Myers as Dr. Lyman Hall, the independent Georgian; Jim Hansen as the calm and reasonable president of Congress, John Hancock; Mitchell Gonzalez as the pompous Richey Henry Lee from Virginia; Julie Fickley as the supportive Abigail Adams; Morgan Burburan as the lovely Martha Jefferson; and all the rest of the cast.
Special mention goes to Dan Brijbag for his evocative lighting design and Terry Stenger for light operation. The opulent costumes were made by a professional company and adjusted nicely by Eileen Bernard. Musical director Roberta Moger's group provides worthy accompaniment.
1776 isn't a perfectly accurate historical depiction of events; writers Sherman Edwards and Peter Stone took liberties with the time line and combined characters for dramatic unity. Even so, those changes do not alter the general story and would bother only the pickiest of historians.
1776 is a joyful and joyous musical, the perfect ending to the most exciting election of our lives.