If you want the quintessential way to make American History not only enjoyable, but absolutely fascinating, you can do no better than the current Burning Coal Theatre Company presentation of the Revolutionary War musical 1776, playing Sept. 27-Oct. 1 and Oct. 6-8, in Pittman Auditorium at Saint Mary’s School in Raleigh, NC. A not-quite musical comedy, this slice of composer Sherman Edwards’ take on the events surrounding the signing of the Declaration of Independence is not so much a musical as it is a play accentuated by music.
While the American Revolution takes place in the background, narrated by desperate Continental Army commander-in-chief George Washington, a handful of men we now know as the Founding Fathers are hammering out the details of the birth of a nation. Edwards’ concept, enhanced by the book by Peter Stone, centers on those 13 men, not at all of one mind but willing to face the judgment of history in striking out on their own—a new, allied country of separate states, apart from the “tyrannical” Great Britain, in the person of King George III and his tax-happy Parliament.
When it chose 1776 as the opening show of its 10th anniversary season, Burning Coal took a different approach to the tried and true when staging this musical interpretation of the historical event. Focusing on the show’s musical numbers, Burning Coal steps up the costumes and make-up and steps down the historical trappings of what was at the time the political center of the Colonies, Philadelphia. Director Matthew Earnest, in his third Burning Coal production, paints the faces of our forefathers—our foremothers—with the humor of musical comedy. He then reduces the stage to a crown molding, a window, and rolling tables. Kat Henwood’s costumes are pretty much Colonial but each comes with a comical twist--for example, the high fishing boots of Thomas Jefferson. McLeod Skinner’s wigs are, of course, in order; but not all are technically of the period, either, and not all of our ancestors wore one.
Director Matthew Earnest reduces the cast to 14, aided by a quartet of piano, violin, trumpet, and percussion led by Nancy Whelan. This quartet is augmented by a cello and dulcimer in the one gut-wrenching song of the evening, “Momma Look Sharp,” sung quietly by the Courier (Ian Finley), who brings those missives from the front. History is tampered with a bit; and the result is a most unconventional revolution, by no means historically correct, but more interesting by a long shot—and toe-tapping, one might add.
The musical centers on the leaders of the Revolutionaries: Adams (David Henderson), Dr. Ben Franklin (George Jack), a rather unwilling Thomas Jefferson (John Moletress), and Congressional President John Hancock (Robin Dorff). They engage in battle with those who would not depart from England: Edward Rutledge (Adam Twiss) and the Tories, led vocally and with passion by John Dickinson (Robert Kaufman).
Aiding and abetting the Whigs (those against the King) are Abigail Adams (Carolyn McKenna) and Martha Jefferson (Becca Johnson), whose emergency visit to Philadelphia when her husband Thomas can no longer put two words together results in the written Declaration itself, as well as the song and dance “He Plays the Violin” (Martha, Adams, Franklin). The quintet of delegates who were assigned the role of writing the noble document were Adams, Franklin, Jefferson, Roger Sherman (Al Singer), and Robert Livingston (Tim Wiest), who immediately left town for New York to escape the assignment (“But, Mr. Adams”). The cast is rounded out by Rhode Island’s Stephen Hopkins (Jason Spinos), Pennsylvania’s James Wilson (Jeffrey Dillard), and Georgia’s Dr. Lyman Hall (Del Flack).
Having thus bent to a wide degree the solemnity of the occasion, director Matthew Earnest then proceeds to stick very close to the original intent of the play, pointing out—with some humor to make the history go down—the trials, frustrations, petty squabbles, and amazing compromises that led to our departure from Britain, including the fact that the move for independence was very nearly defeated, single-handedly, by Pennsylvania’s John Livingston, over the very vehement objections of Ben Franklin, who led the Pennsylvania delegation. This very impassioned and admirable musical is, thus, reinterpreted while still retaining the dignity of the original, when this approach might very well have degenerated into a rampaging commedia del arte.
The result is a most enjoyable evening, with musical high points already mentioned and including a single appearance by Richard Henry Lee (Dorff) before he goes off to Virginia to bring back a Resolution for Independence (“The Lees of Old Virginia”) and a shivering experience as South Carolina Rep. Edward Rutledge describes very acutely for us the slave auctions that take place in Boston (“Molasses to Rum to Slaves”). The music is impressively interpreted with both skill and passion, and makes Burning Coal’s season premiere a brilliant start to the company’s 10th anniversary.
Burning Coal Theatre Company presents 1776 Wednesday-Friday, Sept. 27-29, at 7:30 p.m.; Saturday, Sept. 30, at 2 and 7:30 p.m.; Sunday, Oct. 1, at 2 p.m.; Friday, Oct. 6, at 7:30 p.m.; Saturday, Oct. 7, at 2 and 7:30 p.m.; and Sunday, Oct. 8, at 2 p.m. in Pittman Auditorium at Saint Mary's School, 900 Hillsborough St., Raleigh, North Carolina. $16 ($14 students, seniors 65+, and active-duty military personnel), except $10 Wednesdays and groups of 10 or more and FREE 2 p.m. matinee on Sept. 30th, which is the Theatre Communication Group's national day of free theater. 919/834-4001 or http://www.burningcoal.org/Tickets%20for1776.htm [inactive 8/07]. Note: The 7:30 p.m. Sept. 30th show will be audio described. Burning Coal Theatre Company:http://www.burningcoal.org/. Saint Mary's School: http://www.saint-marys.edu/ [inactive 5/07]. Internet Broadway Database: http://www.ibdb.com/show.asp?ID=1014. Internet Movie Database: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0068156/.