Founding fathers, off the pedestal in theater production

Howard County Times
You'll doubtless note that Maryland's Samuel Chase comes across as a less-than-inspirational figure.

"1776" is a very talkative musical. This isn't surprising, because it is about politicians. It isn't a liability, though, because these particular politicians are in Philadelphia debating the merits of breaking their colonial ties to Great Britain.

Watching this Broadway musical at Toby's Dinner Theatre of Columbia amounts to a civics lesson that'll help you prep for the Fourth of July. Although a very long first act may prompt you to wonder if class will let out on time, it's worthwhile to track the conflicting opinions about independence in a colony-by-colony way. In that regard, you'll doubtless note that Maryland's Samuel Chase comes across as a less-than-inspirational figure.

This show's high word count presents a bit of a challenge for anybody staging it. However lively the debate, there's always the risk that having so many guys in powdered wigs arguing could be a static theatrical experience.

Fortunately, the co-directors and co-choreographers of the Toby's production, Jeremy Scott Blaustein and Shawn Kettering, find ways to keep the squabbling politicians moving around; and the theater's in-the-round stage facilitates all of the entrances and exits in this generally light-hearted show.

There are limits to what they and musical director Douglas Lawler can do with the music, because "1776" does not have a lot of music for a musical.

Although the music and lyrics by Sherman Edwards cleverly highlight themes that are dealt with in some detail in the book by Peter Stone, far more words are said than sung here.

The Toby's production makes the most of these vocal opportunities. John Adams and the other assembled leaders are humorously emphatic in the number "For God's Sake, John, Sit Down," which gets the show off to a lively start.

Besides several other ensemble numbers, the show benefits from a few nicely realized songs for one or two voices.

Jeffrey Shankle is boisterous as John Adams of Massachusetts, who sings more than any other politician at this gathering. Other politicians who get a chance to shine include Dan Felton as Edward Rutledge of South Carolina, who makes a vocally powerful defense of slavery in "Molasses to Rum."

In addition to the relative paucity of songs for a musical, another thing that sets "1776" apart is that its large cast of characters overwhelmingly consists of men. After all, it was the founding fathers who signed the Declaration of Independence.

What's especially welcome in the Toby's production is how it makes the most of the occasional appearances by two, er, founding mothers. Santina Maiolatesi brings a lot of energy to the role of Abigail Adams, who shares her feelings for John via letters that bridge the long distance between them. This production's highlights include John and Abigail Aams sharing tender husband-and-wife duets in "Till Then" and "Yours, Yours, Yours."

Another woman making an appearance is Thomas Jefferson's wife Martha, who is made to seem every bit as smart as her husband thanks to MaryKate Broulliet's performance.

As for the men populating this sweltering chamber in Philadelphia, the Toby's production is blessed with an abundance of actors who know how to make these characters seem like, well, real characters.

To mention them all would be like having to extend a legislative session, but the most pungent personalities among them include John Stevenson as Benjamin Franklin of Pennsylvania, Brendan McMahon as Thomas Jefferson of Virginia, B. Thomas Rinaldi as Lewis Morris of New York, Lawrence B. Munsey as President John Hancock, Robert John Biedermann as Stephen Hopkins of Rhode Island, Ariel Messeca as the Rev. Jonathan Witherspoon of New Jersey, Chris Rudy as Roger Sherman of Connecticut, and Jeremy Scott Blaustein as Richard Henry Lee of Virginia.

These politicians go through drafts both written and liquid before they arrive at the Declaration of Independence. It's an enjoyably patriotic experience to watch as they argue, joke, argue some more and eventually get those familiar words approved.

"1776" runs through July 5 at Toby's Dinner Theatre of Columbia, 5900 Symphony Woods Road in Columbia. Tickets are $39.50- $58. Call 410-730-8311 or go to http://www.tobysdinnertheatre.com.

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