Washington Crossing's Open Air Theatre Opens Its Season With a Patriotic Musical
Independence Day came early at Washington Crossing's Open Air Theatre this year. For the first musical in the Theatre's 2005 season, the Actor's NET of Bucks County presented Sherman Edwards' 1776, the musical story of the days leading up the creation and signing of the Declaration of Independence. This is a musical with only 13 songs, and although the long segments of dialogue bogged down at times in Friday night's performance, there were a number of high points in the still-evolving production.
1776 is almost a one-person show, with the character of John Adams assuming most of the dramatic responsibility. Not surprisingly, this production was spear-headed by Actors' NET managing director Joe Doyle, who has made a theatrical career out of portraying John Adams, including performing at the National Archives and the residence of Vice President Cheney. A little heavy vocally with vibrato but strong in his conviction of Adams' character, Mr. Doyle had a capable theatrical partner in Michael Ashby, portraying Benjamin Franklin. Franklin's character was written as sardonic and satirical, which may well have been the case, and Mr. Ashby kept some of the mired dialogue moving along.
Also among the show's most interesting characters was South Carolina delegate Edward Rutledge, played by George Hartpence. Mr. Hartpence's portrayal had a sufficient amount of arrogance to give the character life, as South Carolina put up the most vigorous fight against the independence movement. As Thomas Jefferson, James Petro immediately demonstrated himself to be among the best singers in the cast, but was quickly overshadowed by his engaging wife.
There are only two women in this cast. Abigail Adams appears to her husband, John, as a theatrical aside, and Mary Liz Ivins was steadfast and solid in her portrayal of Mrs. Adams. A breath of fresh air came at the end of the first act with Kyla Marie Mostello's portrayal of Martha Jefferson, the wife of Thomas Jefferson. Mrs. Jefferson's character has the best number in the show ("He Plays the Violin" nicely accompanied by violinist Deberly Kaufman) and Ms. Mostello's saucy interpretation gave a refreshing peek at a romantic side of early America.
The rest of the delegates came together as an ensemble for the chorus numbers. Collectively, they could have used a bit more precision and certainly more miking for the actors at the back of the stage. Accompanying the cast was a small ensemble of winds and brass conducted by Pat Masterson. Although the winds faded a bit in the humidity, the ensemble kept the musical pace moving. An ensemble scene among Connecticut delegate Roger Sherman (Jeff Pilchman), New York delegate Robert Livingston (David DeFelippis), and Thomas Jefferson was especially well balanced and defined. A simple but creative set designed by George Hartpence served as the backdrop for most of the action, which takes place in the Chamber of the Continental Congress in Philadelphia.
1776 tries to be a lot of things to the audience. Besides a character study of the more than twenty delegates to the Continental Congress, the show offers commentary on slavery, pokes fun at the current Congress, and musically editorializes on war. All these concepts unraveled a bit in this production, and the story seemed to bog down in endless stretches of slow-moving dialogue, especially in the second act.
Actors' NET also chose this play as the first musical of the Open Air season to coincide with the July 4th weekend. Although it seems to be a signature show of this particular theater company, 1776 has not been done that many times at the Open Air Theatre, and will certainly have audience appeal at this time of year.
1776 will continue at the Open Air Theatre on June 29, 30, July 1, and 2. Ticket information can be obtained by calling the Open Air Theatre box office at (609) 737-1826.