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'1776' on stage proves still timely

LARGO

It has been well over 200 years since Americans declared their independence from England, yet during these days of racial unrest, Hamilton dominating Broadway, Brexit and a divisive presidential election, perhaps a history lesson with a visit thrown in by the Second Continental Congress is in order.

Eight O'Clock Theatre is presenting 1776, The Musical, through Sunday at the Largo Cultural Center. The show, with Sherman Edwards' music, based on Peter Stone's book, takes a look at the days in Philadelphia leading up to the signing of the Declaration of Independence, and the disagreements and (spoiler alert) compromises that led to the separation from the British monarchy. On stage are 26 characters. Two are women, Abigail Adams (Sadra Bostick) and Martha Jefferson (Amy Phillips), and, like this country's Founding Fathers, 24 are white men, in wigs and britches, including American icons John Adams (Dan Mason), Ben Franklin (Ben Taylor), Thomas Jefferson (Billy Masuck) and John Hancock (Jerry Slutzky).

For Mason, the value of 1776 can be seen not just in the catchy tunes Sit Down John, Lees of Old Virginia,' and Molasses to Rum, but also in the powerful script.

"You could take the music away and the script itself still holds up,'' Mason said. "The fact that there's great songs, and by the way, songs that hit something, that can make you uncomfortable, that makes it that much greater. As an actor, to get a role like John Adams this year, at this time, where so much is intense, is a great thing.''

And Taylor, who joked that he never saw his resemblance to Franklin before this show, hopes the audience will walk away with a renewed appreciation for the art of compromise. Although, he admits that his character of Franklin at times was a manipulator as well as one who compromised.

"The audience will see at certain times during the show his manipulation was not necessarily a bad thing,'' he said. "In the end, he helped accomplish getting the Declaration of Independence done. Today, our leaders could benefit from seeing this play because they don't seem to know how to compromise anymore, and compromise should be a part of politics.''

Bringing 1776 to the stage was on director James Grenelle's wish list for several years. "One big reason 1776 has not been done more is because it's difficult getting 24 male actors on one stage,'' said Grenelle.

Several months ago, Grenelle and several others involved in community theater here in Tampa Bay, created a Facebook page. "We basically asked people if they were interested,'' he said.

When Betsy Byrd, Eight O'Clock Theatre's managing director, learned actors were interested, she told Grenelle she'd like it done on the Largo stage.

"I can't tell you how excited I am that James found 24 men to commit to this. To get so many to do this, a two-month rehearsal process, is a tough undertaking,'' she said.

In the end, the biggest value of 1776 is its timeliness, said Grenelle.

"This is not a show about 24 men. This is a show about freedom and unity,'' he said. "Some of it, like in Act II when Edward Rutledge (Stephen Fee) sings about slavery, it is chilling. It takes place in the past, but people should take away the relevance it has on what's happening today.''

Contact Piper Castillo at pcastillo@tampabay.com. Follow @Florida_PBJC.

'1776' on stage proves still timely 07/19/16 [Last modified: Wednesday, July 20, 2016 3:33pm]
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