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Something Old . . . New . . . and 'Blue'

Newport Theatre Arts Center: Far removed from the drama of the Founding Fathers that inspired '1776,' the production lacks focus and balance despite a few good performances.

June 12, 1996|T.H. McCULLOH | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

NEWPORT BEACH — Especially in an award-winning musical such as "1776," which Larry Watts has directed at the Newport Theatre Arts Center, humor should derive naturally from character.

Not so with a number of these performers, some of whom seem to think that posing and mugging are acting, and most of whom are playing the period rather than existing in the period.

Peter Stone's book, about the Continental Congress that forged our Declaration of Independence, maintains a delicate balance between seriousness (John Adams' attempt to convince the colonies that independence is the only way to survival) and the very human frailties that make his task difficult and often amusing. Watts hasn't been able to keep that balance believable, and his staging lacks the focus the show demands.

Nor does his staging of the musical numbers help. The stage is small, but Watts could have done more than just march his performers around the tables single file. Beginning the serious numbers with the singers seated minimizes their effect. And Watts' old-fashioned way of having his characters sing and speak to the audience, rather than to the other characters, is distracting and detracts from the dramatic intent of both dialogue and score.

Sometimes it looks like a minstrel show, end-men and all. The show's one indestructible moment--the signing of the Declaration--is left to its own devices and brings tears as usual.

The evening is not without its compensations. Some of the performances rise above Watts' carelessness with integrity and some fire.

Martin Kennedy is a forceful and winning John Adams, and he gives his musical numbers a polish that keeps them interesting, as does the attractive and rightly restrained Jeanette Elaine Lula as Adams' ever-patient wife, Abigail. Their letter-writing duets are touching.

Careful not to slip into caricature, Dan B. Rodgers is an impressive Benjamin Franklin. He understands Franklin's frankly extravagant style and the subtle wisdom underlying his wit. George Almond has great strength as Edward Rutledge, the impossible delegate from South Carolina, but unfortunately he treats one of the show's best numbers, the ironic, pro-slavery "Molasses to Rum," as an aria more concerned with tone than with content.

*

Casey Mervine is effervescent and kinetic as Richard Henry Lee and Jacob Levi Robertson forlorn and touching as the young courier, but both Mervine's buoyant "The Lees of Old Virginia" and Robertson's heart-wrenching "Momma, Look Sharp" lack the inner energy they should have.

Kirk Larson is woefully miscast as a wispy Thomas Jefferson, looking about to swoon at any moment, as is Sharon Schwanz as his wife, who--in spite of a striking voice--is kittenish and coy, like a giddy Shirley Temple grinning at the audience.

In supporting roles, valid performances are given by Steven P. Bernsten as the rum-guzzling Stephen Hopkins, Chris Moore as the cautious Dr. Lyman Hall and Tom Royer as the abrasive John Dickinson.

The tone of character-based humor that the whole show should have is provided by Jack Millis, completely dead-pan but exceptionally funny as beleaguered congressional secretary Charles Thomson.

* "1776," the Newport Theatre Arts Center, 2501 Cliff Drive, Newport Beach. Thursday-Saturday, 8 p.m. (no performance July 4); Sunday, 2:30 p.m. Ends July 7. $13. (714) 631-0288. Running time: 2 hours, 45 minutes.

1776

Martin Kennedy: John Adams

Steven P. Bernsten: Stephen Hopkins

Dan B. Rodgers: Dr. Benjamin Franklin

Tom Royer: John Dickinson

Casey Mervine: Richard Henry Lee

Kirk Larson: Thomas Jefferson

George Almond: Edward Rutledge

Chris Moore: Dr. Lyman Hall

Jack Millis: Charles Thomson

Jeanette Elaine Lula: Abigail Adams

Sharon Schwanz: Martha Jefferson

Jacob Levi Robertson: A courier

A Newport Theatre Arts Center production of a musical by Peter Stone and Edward Sherman, produced by Brenda Abshear and Barbara Thibault, directed and choreographed by Larry Watts. Scenic design: 16th Street Design. Lighting design: Jane Phillips Hobson. Costumes: Tom Phillips. Stage manager: Verlene Van Amber.

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