CenterPoint Legacy Theater’s “1776” Will Make You Stand Up and Cheer

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1776 – MWF Cast Preview, by Susannah Whitman, 1776 TThS Cast Preview, By Jennifer Mustoe, Jessica Leigh Johnson, and Mike Smith

Front Row Reviewers Utah was given a great opportunity to review The CenterPoint Legacy Theatre’s production of 1776 in their preview shows, and was able to review both casts. We want to thank CPLT for this great opportunity. We can say with complete honesty that no matter what night you come see this show, you will love it.

When Lin-Manuel’s production of Hamilton hit Broadway in 2015, the world started paying a little bit more attention to the Founding Fathers. While 1776 is an older production (it originated on Broadway in 1969), it will have the same effect: You’ll leave the theatre feeling like a patriot.

Set during the sweltering hot summer of 1776, the musical 1776 tells the story of the men who wrote the Declaration of Independence. General George Washington’s troops are in disarray, and defeat seems imminent. John Adams is stubbornly pushing for a break with England, Thomas Jefferson would much rather spend time with his wife than write up important documents, and Congress as a whole alternates between bickering, drinking, and light-heartedly throwing witty insults at one another. That a new country could be born of this mess is astonishing, and makes for great theatre.

Josh Richardson’s direction focused on effective storytelling, and every element of the production combined to create a moving experience for audience members of all ages. Americans can sometimes deify the Founding Fathers, or mythologize the story of America’s founding. But Richardson focused on the more complicated truth, which is that the story of America’s founding is both messy and beautiful. There are the shameful truths of slavery and the painful truths of compromise and the inspiring truths of perseverance. Under Richardson’s direction, the show humanizes the story of the year 1776 in a way that makes it even more meaningful than the myths we sometimes cling to.

The curtain rises on the continental Congress of Philadelphia, May of 1776. Scott Van Dyke’s set design is excellent. It’s balanced well and provides nice levels for a pleasing visual picture. Three large windows are used to show the weather outside, and also serve as screens for the occasional projection. The projections were extremely effective in this show—they are used to show the passage of time, and to strengthen the messages of the show. The projections used for “Molasses to Rum” and “Is Anybody There?” were especially powerful.

David Rees’ lighting design and Krista Davies’ sound design were equally effective in telling the story.

The cast of 1776 was a blend of theatre newbies and seasoned performers. But watching their work onstage, I couldn’t tell who was who—each actor did wonderfully. It’s difficult to highlight standout performances, since 1776 is such an ensemble show, and every actor and actress had a moment to shine. There is a lot of “sitting around” during the scenes in Congress, but every single actor had a distinct personality and remained deeply engaged in the action. Several performances are worth noting in the Monday/Wednesday/Friday cast.

Zach Watts was a perfect Richard Henry Lee, with an endearing enthusiasm that made the audience fall in love with him and drove the other characters mad. Dave Hill delivered his one-liners as Benjamin Franklin with wonderful timing. I was especially charmed by Daniel Sessions as Thomas Jefferson. He brought a youthful innocence to the role, and played Jefferson’s honest integrity so sincerely that you couldn’t help but adore him. Todd Wente and Natalie Peterson had such warmth and affection for each other as John and Abigail Adams, and their number “Yours, Yours, Yours” was filled with such tenderness. Both Wente and Peterson showed both strength and vulnerability, wit and stubbornness in their moments onstage, either together or apart.

My only criticism is of the way Martha Jefferson was portrayed. Britty Marie is very pretty, and a wonderful dancer, and a lovely singer. But I wanted more inner strength from her. She is no mere “Princess of the American Revolution”—the wives of these men played an enormous role in the fight for American independence. Her one number, “Violin,” is an opportunity to show that Martha is the intellectual equal of these men, to let the audience see why Jefferson burns for her. I wanted less wide-eyed innocence and more knowing wit.

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But in all honesty, there wasn’t really a weak actor among the bunch. Richardson cast a strong group of singers and actors, with a good variety of physical looks.

TTHS commentary: The stand outs from this show were Kyle Esposito as John Adams. This fine actor has an amazing voice and his acting talent is just as powerful. All of us were spellbound by his scenes. His dear duets with the fantastic Alexandra Camastro as Abigail Adams were phenomenal. Her voice was rich and sweet and blended perfectly with Esposito’s. The other true stand out was the actor who played Edward Rutledge in his one song, “Molasses to Rum.” Everything about this performance was perfect—so filled with beauty, pain, anger, condescension, bitterness. If there was one song and performance that embodied the entire show, it would be this. So poignant and powerful. He threw everything into this. The trio of Adams and Jason Wadsworth as Benjamin Franklin and Jeffrey Black as Thomas Jefferson was wonderful. The voices blended well and we felt a real camaraderie with these three.

While there were some historical inconsistencies in the costumes, overall, Laurie Oswald’s work was effective. I was a little distracted by the modern makeup and hair of the two women in the show (dark lipstick and loose hairstyles), but not so distracted that I couldn’t focus on the story.

Kristi Shaw’s choreography was a perfect fit for this show. This is not a script that should showcase dancing—it should be used incidentally to move the story forward, and that’s exactly what was done. (I especially loved the 10-paces-to-duel-with-the-quills moment in “But, Mr. Adams.”) Most of these actors are not dancers, so Shaw’s darling dance steps were simple but really fun and executed well.

There are two “show-stoppers” in this production. The first is the haunting “Mamma Look Sharp” at the top of Act II, when the reality of the Revolutionary War is highlighted. But by far, the most memorable number is “Molasses to Rum.” Matt Hewitt plays Edward Rutledge, the delegate from South Carolina, who refuses to vote for American independence unless slavery can remain in practice. When the other delegates protest, he delivers a scathing rebuttal pointing out their hypocrisy. Hewitt’s passion in the song is powerful, and you could hear a pin drop in the moments of silence during the song and the scenes directly afterwards. It’s uncomfortable in exactly the right way. It was wrong for Americans to practice slavery, and “Molasses to Rum” is a powerful and necessary reminder of that sin.

Summing up, we were amazed at how many men could be so talented and amassed in one show. I know that sounds strange, but there are not only almost all men in this show, but two casts’ worth! And not a clinker in the bunch. Strong vocal and dramatic performances. This show shouldn’t be missed. The only reasons I’d say don’t bring your children is the show is very long (almost 2 ½ hours or more) and there are a lot of damns. Other than that, this is a show that will inspire your young people and is an opportunity to have them experience this 4th of July season in a very remarkable way.

Centerpoint Legacy Theatre presents 1776 (music and lyrics by Sherman Edwards, book by Peter Stone)   Centerpoint Legacy Theatre Barlow Mainstage, 525 N 400 W Centerville, UT 84014

June 16th – July 15th, with performances Monday – Saturday, 7:30 pm Tickets: $14.00 – $25.50  Box Office: 801-298-1302

http://www.centerpointtheatre.org/

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