Thursday, June 20, 2013
Theater review: Granbury pulls off capital performance of 1776
Granbury's historic courthouse presents an interesting backdrop.
GRANBURY 1776 is the musical that was directly responsible for inciting my early interest in American history. My father was a great fan of John Adams and I recall repeatedly watching the film version of 1776 at his side and secretly harboring a crush on, at varying times, Thomas Jefferson, John Adams or the courier whose sole job was to deliver to Congress the missives from George Washington. At times in my life, I've been known to recite portions of the dialogue and even, in some cases, bits of resolutions and the Declaration itself.
Because of my exposure to this play and the curiosity it engendered about the delegates, I've gone digging through pertinent portions of "Journals of the Continental Congress, 1775-1789" and various other documents to check for historical accuracy. (In case you're interested: it's not completely accurate but bits of the dialogue and lyrics are direct quotes from reports and minutes of the Congress and letters of its delegates.) Oh, and I've seen multiple stage productions and know every song by heart.
All of this tends to be somewhat of a challenge for any cast of 1776 that I should happen to see on stage. For while I adore the musical and am prepared to enjoy myself to the hilt, the cast is going to have quite a bit of work to do to erase the memorable performances of William Daniels, Ken Howard, Howard da Silva, Blythe Danner, et al., from my mind.
I'm happy to report that this challenge was recently well met by the cast and crew of Granbury Theatre Company's production of 1776, which is currently running in a creative and most appropriate venue, the restored Historic Granbury Courthouse. While not completely accurate historically (after all, their courthouse was built in 1890), it is a fitting location that helps the audience suspend its disbelief, and has a fairly similar layout to that of Independence Hall's Assembly Room, which is where the actual Second Continental Congress met. The wooden steps, intricate molding and elaborate metalwork contribute greatly to the mood of the piece as does the two-story height of the courtroom in which the musical actually takes place.
As might be expected, these same details also provide quite a challenge to Sound Technician Robert G. Shores. Courtrooms aren't generally built with a focus on strong acoustics and this one is no exception. Still, Shores works hard to ensure that the sound is audible but not overpowering and that the dialogue is, with the exception of the opening number, crisp and intelligible. Sound effects and music tracks are perfectly timed, and while there are a few moments of feedback here and there, overall the sound is admirably handled given the constraints within which Shores has to work.
An additional challenge exists for Lighting Designer Adam Livingston. All sound and lighting equipment is placed unobtrusively around the edges of the room, with the audience sitting in the gallery (which can be a mite uncomfortable, so bring a cushion if you're inclined toward a sore tailbone). This allows the bench side of the bar to be the main "stage" with additional action occurring on either side and down the center aisle. Depending on your seat, this configuration greatly adds to the possibility of a bright white spotlight being shone in your face from time to time when the actors are performing in the center aisle, though the discomfort does not last long as Livingston and Director Andrew Barrus keep the lights and action moving at these moments. In comparison, the small LED candles with visible plastic flames that are present in the production are almost more jarring. Despite these minor peccadillos, the courtroom is the perfect location and the plot and actors keep the audience so entertained that it is easy to understand and forgive.
1776 is the story of the Second Continental Congress during the month prior to the adoption and signing of the Declaration of Independence. It is a fun and informative exploration of the men who served during this period in history, and of the philosophical and political views held in the various corners of the colonies at the time.
Most importantly, it highly humanizes our Founding Fathers; serious dialogue is interspersed with amusing one-liners and lively songs with jocular lyrics that very clearly illustrate the alternating respect, conflict and caring inherent in the relationships between the men and women the play depicts.
In 1776, many of the men in Congress have memorable lines or songs and, prior to the show, I wondered if the small town of Granbury would be able to field the number of talented male actors necessary to fill these roles. The answer is an unequivocal yes. I am, frankly, somewhat surprised by the amount of vocal talent that appears to be concentrated in the area.
Ben Lokey as the "obnoxious and disliked" John Adams is mesmerizing and truly makes the part his own. Lokey's vocal abilities are considerable, and he is able to convey a wide range of emotion through vocal tone alone. Lokey also displays a wonderful talent for keeping the rest of the cast in time with the music.
GTC's production does not utilize live musicians, instead relying on a track to provide the music, which is always a danger, as a recorded track is largely inflexible. Every cast member must remember lyrics and timing perfectly or risk throwing the entire show off. While this is not a major problem with this production, when slight timing issues do occur, Lokey is instrumental in righting the matter.
Further, Lokey perfectly balances Adams' serious demeanor and dry humor with almost frenetic energy, deep devotion to his cause and the tenderness and longing displayed for his wife, Abigail, played by Amy Atkins. Atkins is likewise memorable for both her strong, clear voice and the playfully bantering, yet deeply emotive relationship that she and Lokey are able to build between Abigail and John. When watching the two of them, one can immediately understand the attraction and value that Abigail and John felt one another possessed. This is quite a feat considering it is done largely through voice and facial expression, as their conversations actually take place through letters and thus no touching is involved.
Kevin Poole plays Thomas Jefferson and is similarly successful at making the character his own. Poole's Jefferson is slightly more waggish and less introverted than other performances I've seen. While seeming to be occasionally daydreaming and staring into space, Poole's Jefferson never completely floats away from reality. Though somewhat reserved, he is always mentally engaged and ready to utter some dry, witty comment designed to put another delegate, often Adams, firmly in his place. Poole's quiet attitude shifts somewhat when his wife Martha arrives on the scene. His interactions with Martha are fraught with passionate energy, displayed by Poole, when he rushes to get her into his arms at every chance. Similarly, Martha, played by Kat Ewing, can't wait to rush into his arms; the chemistry between these two is palpable.
In scenes that do not involve Jefferson, however, Ewing fades somewhat. She is a lovely dancer but is not quite as vocally strong as the rest of the cast; she's a little more pop while they're a little more operatic. In addition, her wide-eyed facial expressions and blinding smile seem slightly off, almost like a showgirl who has put on a Colonial-style dress. This is not quite so distracting when Jefferson is wrapping himself around Martha but becomes more so when she needs to stand on her own.
Rounding out the main threesome of delegates is Benjamin Franklin, played by Tony Hedges. It takes Hedges a little while to fully sink into his role and his comic timing is slightly off every so often but his performance is generally strong and his slightly bumbling antics and lilting delivery certainly put forth the playful, inventive mind of Franklin. Vocally, he is strong and his voice blends nicely with those of Lokey and Jefferson to create a lovely trio.
The other members of the cast all do a fine job in their respective role but a few who stand out in my mind are listed here.
Director Andrew Barrus is hilarious as the loud, dim-witted and egomaniacal Richard Henry Lee. Jack Jaggers as John Dickinson comes across as strong and principled, and is surprisingly powerful when he loses his temper with John Adams.
Jamie Long's Stephen Hopkins is lovable and amusing, with a voice that is oddly reminiscent of Herbert from Family Guy. Kalani Morissette's Dr. Josiah Bartlett oozes unadulterated earnestness and compassion. Andy Looney's John Hancock is powerful yet clearly human, and his physical presence is discernible even when not a focal point of a scene. The unnamed actor who played the courier delivering General Washington's dispatches is excellent. As the play progresses he grows ever more dour and haggard, aptly representing the feeling of the troops awaiting word from Congress. This is quite a feat considering the part is largely mute.
But perhaps the most powerful moment of the play is performed by Brian Lawson as Edward Rutledge, the delegate from South Carolina.
Lawson's swagger, swelled chest and piercing voice identify Rutledge as a man to be reckoned with, but the power and beauty of his performance of "Molasses to Rum".
This, a sobering song about the importance of the slave trade to both the Southern and Northern colonies, is still unexpected.
Lawson's passion during this song is absolutely riveting, while his vocal performance is the sort that you can physically feel moving in your gut. In short, he is phenomenal.
Throughout 1776, each delegate is distinguishable by his dress just as much as by his character. The elaborate brocade coats and breeches of many of the delegates from the Southern colonies change to slightly more muted coats and breeches for those from the Northern colonies.
Benjamin Franklin is easily recognizable, and John Adams stands out due to his more plain and simplistic dress. The actors appear comfortable in their costumes, though problems can arise such as a detached cuff flopping about during one scene and a pair of breeches getting stuck somewhat haphazardly with one leg shorter than the other.
Almost the entire cast dons wigs which are again appropriate and of decent quality, though they are a bit ill-fitting on one or two of the delegates on whom they ride up slightly in the back. Another slight oddity is that Martha Jefferson is sporting anachronistic hair and makeup styling, which causes her to stand out from the rest of the cast and detracts from the belief that she is the wife of a great statesman and plantation owner. Her dress, however, is lovely, as is the clothing of Abigail Adams who is both very appropriately attired and well-coiffed.
The final analysis? Between the interesting costuming, the sheer talent of its performers, the wonderful script and music, and the incomparable setting, Granbury Theatre Company's 1776 is a wonderful and amusing experience for any theatre, music or history buff. And, on leaving, you might just be surprised by what you have learned.
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