Founding Father Knows Best?

With its rendition of perennial favorite 1776, the Asolo Repertory Theatre has offered a patriotic start to its 2012-2013 season saluting the American Character. I loved this show when I saw it several years ago on Broadway, and it was especially satisfying to revisit this musical about the genesis of the American experiment just a few short weeks after a very long and difficult election season.

The show follows the two-month period in the summer of 1776 when our Founding Fathers—most significantly, John Adams (Bernie Yvon), Ben Franklin (Andrew Boyer) and Thomas Jefferson (Brandon Dahlquist)—manage to pull off a revolution among a group of staid and conservative landed gentry. All the action takes place in the confines of the Continental Congress, which is literally and figuratively a stuffy place where very little ever moves. The opening song, “Sit Down John,” in which the delegates sing of their frustrations with Adams’ continual push for independence, features the refrain, “Why don’t you open up a window?” thereby setting the scene in which both the room and the tempers are overheated. Adams, Franklin, and John Hancock (Patrick Clear), President of the 2nd Continental Congress, are all clearly in favor of independence from England. They soon learn that the Virginia delegation, including the hilariously pompous Richard Henry Lee (Jay Lusteck), who comedically creates adverbs using his last name for nearly every declaration he utters, are squarely in their camp.

Franklin convinces Adams to find someone else to move for independence, because whatever he says is filtered through his bombastic spirit that nearly everyone seems to detest. Adams is so single-minded in his belief that the colonies must break from England that everything else suffers, including his family. Through their correspondence, we frequently hear from the wonderful Abigail Adams (Abby Mueller), who reaches her husband in a way no one else can. Her children are sick and their family farm is in decline, yet she holds herself and her husband together. Mueller’s voice is clear and light, and each time she signs off, “Yours Abigail,” she pulls a bit at your heart.  She helps remind the audience of the humanity of these well-known political figures.When the reluctant Congressmen, led by Pennsylvania’s John Dickinson, decide that they will require a unanimous vote for independence, Adams’s goal seems unattainable (even though we all know the ending). Director Frank Galati winningly creates dramatic tension in the production, and I found my gaze fixed on the ledger with the list of the colonies showing the votes for and against independence.  The magnificent Jeff Parker returns to the Asolo after a fantastic and unique portrayal of Henry Higgins in My Fair Lady to play Dickinson with a Frasier Crane air, hell-bent on holding up the union to spare his own fortune. He and Adams are frequently pitted against one another, and often it feels as though Dickinson is winning. Adams has a stroke of genius and decides to require a written document declaring independence so that they will have something to send to the King should the vote go in their favor. This buys them several more weeks, but Adams must then convince a love-lorn Jefferson, who wants to go home to see his wife, to draft the famous document. Adams summons Jefferson’s wife, Martha, played by Andrea Prestinario (last seen as a lovely Eliza Doolittle opposite Parker), who stole the show. Her rendition of “He Plays the Violin” was a revelation and emphasized just how important the Founding Mothers were. I’m delighted that Galati chose to give the ladies such an important place in this production, largely due to expert casting of Mueller and Prestinario.

A few other highlights included a very timely rendition of “Cool, Cool Considerate Men,” led by Parker singing the refrain, “To the right, ever to the right, never to the left, forever to the right” about the Congressmen’s desire to hold steadfastly to the status quo so that they might hold onto their “land and cash in hand.” Also noteworthy was a very chilling rendition of “Molasses to Rum” by Edward Rutledge of South Carolina, played by the excellent Jarrod Zimmerman, in which he declared that the South would never relinquish the rights to slavery even if it meant sacrificing independence.

It’s important that we always remember that, as divided as we think our country is today, its divisions were there right from the start.  1776 reminds us that the Congressmen were committing treason when they adopted the Declaration of Independence and signed it at great personal risk to themselves, but they put their very strong differences aside for the greater good. As our Congress debates tax increases and cuts to social programs, it never hurts to take a refresher course in the finesse our Founding Fathers used to put this country on the map. This is a great family show for the holidays that I highly recommend.  For tickets, go to asolorep.org.

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