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Theater Review : When The Revolution Goes Sour

February 22, 1986|LIANNE STEVENS

NATIONAL CITY — The founding moments of our country no doubt hold a treasure of dramatic material--fascinating tidbits rarely related in high school history classes: Men too long apart from their wives, propertied officials reluctant to offend the king who so generously padded their real estate holdings, sweltering heat in Philadelphia and a desperately inexperienced army of young boys and old men.

Nevertheless, the fateful Declaration of Independence was finally signed--a miracle of compromise that would make any politician proud.

So one can't fault author Peter Stone and composer-lyricist Sherman Edwards for trying to make theater out of this pivotal event. But the fact that "1776," hoped to be the ultimate patriotic musical, has been rarely produced since its 1969 premiere and a mediocre film attempt three years later gives a clue to their success.

Lamb's Players bravely resurrected the musical for its season opener Friday, a task that required more actors squeezed into the small theater than ever before attempted. Just as our forefathers feared their own brazen defiance of the British giant, Lamb's Players must be having second thoughts about taking on this cumbersome, ill-conceived musical.

It's just too much for director Deborah Gilmour Smyth.

The biggest disappointment is the music. Edwards' tunes are quite forgettable to begin with, but the cast seems to be suffering a contagion of sour notes. Has music director Vanda Thompson thrown up her hands in despair?

Two exceptions deserve immediate mention, so welcome are they: a military courier played by Jeff Okey pours out his soul in a heart-wrenching, sweetly sung ballad about a young man dying on his hometown's square, called "Momma Look Sharp." He closes the tedious, 90-minute first act with musical promise.

John Ara Martin, playing Edward Rutledge of South Carolina, is the only one to fulfill that hope in Act II with fine vocals in "Molasses to Rum," a song that drives straight to the economic point of slavery. It smoothly illustrates the defeat of a clause in the Declaration that might have ended the practice the moment our nation was born.

Despite the tedium, there are clever interludes in Stone's script. Benjamin Franklin, played with a sprightly humor by Kurt Reichert, gets all the best lines, of course, followed by his partner in revolutionary fervor, John Adams (Robert Smyth), who alienates nearly everyone with his fanatic insistence on the colonies' rebellion.

The unconventional means by which they secure Thomas Jefferson's assistance is depicted with an amusing flair by Kerry Cederberg as a cooperative Martha Jefferson and David Brown as the eloquently gifted Virginian.

Smyth displays so much fire as Adams that he makes others in the cast of 22 seem faded by comparison, but his singing suffers. Only in duets with his real-life wife, director Gilmour Smyth as Abigail Adams, does any sort of harmony--domestic or otherwise--prevail.

With all of its tension hinged upon a known conclusion, with songs that do not inspire a hum, "1776" cries for a splashy staging. But Gilmour Smyth has chosen--not wisely, it turns out--to explore an angle expressed by the authors: "What of the similarities between those times and these?"

She's put her 13 colony representatives in department-store suits, opting for such non-Revolutionary attire as purple shirts and lime-green coats (designed by Margaret Neuhoff). They drink coffee spiked with Coffeemate, use ZIP code abbreviations in their vote tallies, eat doughnuts that come in supermarket packaging and fail miserably to maintain geographically influenced accents.

Yet Mike Buckley's set displays a ceiling fan, albeit electrically operated, wooden chairs and a floor stylishly plastered with flyers that might have been turned out by Franklin himself. David Thayer's lighting is splotchy and erratic, inconsistent with day or night, candlelight, electric bulbs or theatrical license.

One suspects that the disregard for time period was less artistic statement than desperation by a design staff hard put to clothe 20 men in 18th-Century attire and dress a stage to match.

This is a sad defeat for us, and for Gilmour Smyth. If a message was intended, it got lost in the confusion. These men do not seem motivated by the same concerns that stir us today, pinstriped shirts notwithstanding. Meanwhile, the audience has been denied full transport to what must have been a genuinely exciting time.

"1776" has no doubt been a learning endeavor for Lamb's Players. The musical still holds historical interest for playgoers, but don't expect too much from it.

"1776" Book by Peter Stone. Music and lyrics by Sherman Edwards. Directed by Deborah Gilmour Smyth. Music direction by Vanda Thompson. Costume designer is Margaret Neuhoff. Scene design by Mike Buckley. Light and sound design by David Thayer. With David Heath, David Carminito, Robert Smyth, Duane C. Causie, Wade Collings, J. Mark Crouse, C. Gayle Todd, Kurt Reichert, Paul Eggington, Parker H. Dinwiddie, Paul Landry, Tim McLaughlin, Race Wilt, John Franklin Thomas, Phil Card, David Brown, John Ara Martin, Kenneth Wagner, Tom Stephenson, Deborah Gilmour Smyth, Kerry Cederberg, Jeff Okey. Tuesday through Saturday at 8 p.m, Saturday matinees at 2 p.m., through March 22 at Lamb's Players Theatre, 500 Plaza Blvd., National City.

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