1776: THE MUSICAL (Media): Not your textbook history production

Ben Dibble stars as John Adams, in 1776 The Musical. Photo by Maura McConnell
Ben Dibble stars as John Adams, in 1776 The Musical. Photo by Maura McConnell

When on the first day of seventh grade, the teacher, a rather old nun, opened our class saying, “I do not like boys. The girls will always go first,” we all knew it was going to be a rough year. Catholic school left me with many memories. Most of them involved me, sitting bored out of my mind as a teacher attempted to force knowledge into my rather uninterested head. Math, English, History…

This is why, on my way to the Media Theatre production of 1776, I began having visions of myself as a school girl, sitting in a history classroom, bored out of my mind. Let’s face it, school text books are not known for being captivating. But, soon after the lights dimmed in the Media Theatre, I realized this production was going to be dramatically different than I had anticipated.

The story opens on John Adams (played by the much-loved Ben Dibble, star on many Philadelphia stages) and the Second Continental Congress (made up of a superb cast) in May, 1776. Adams, the “obnoxious and disliked” representative of Massachusetts, is working to convince Congress to “vote yes” for American independence. The initial musical number involves Adams struggling to convince the griping Congressmen that independence is the way to go had audience members laughing and tapping their feet.

The well-dressed Congressmen, delegates from each of the 13 colonies, argue and struggle to convince each other to join their side of the fight. Either they will vote to maintain the status quo and remain under the British crown, or declare and fight for American independence. We all know the story, but we’ve never heard it quite like this.

The musical takes us through a number of slightly raunchy historical jokes and innuendos. In one of the songs, Martha Jefferson (vibrant Meredith Beck) sings about her husband playing the violin, in a flirtatious number, full of subtle sexual innuendo. Later, when Thomas Jefferson (passionate Joseph O’Brien) runs off with his wife (presumably to have sex), a smutty Benjamin Franklin (engaging John Morrison), says, “Perhaps I should have written the Declaration after all. At my age, there’s little doubt the pen is mightier than the sword.”

The show takes the audience through many more brilliant musical numbers and entertaining historical scenes before we arrive at July 4, 1776, when the bickering, overheated, and frustrated Congress members signed the Declaration of Independence.

John Morrison as Ben Franklin. Photo by Maura McConnell

The play, by Edward Sherman (songwriter) and Peter Stone (book author), is not entirely accurate in its history and sometimes reorders events for dramatic effect. However, it draws heavily on later accounts written by Congressmen, as well as established historical information. 1776 offers a lot of information in a delightfully amusing and musical way.

For example, in the play, the South, led by delegate Rutledge of South Carolina (played in boldly dramatic ways by Luke Brandt), demands the abolishment of the anti-slavery clause from the Declaration of Independence. Rutledge goes so far as to sing a darkly beautiful musical number to this affect. Historically speaking, it was not Rutledge, but a number of delegates from both the North and South that demanded the anti-slavery clause be removed from the Declaration.

Jennie Eisenhower, popular director and choreographer, put together a spectacular production of this historical musical. Each scene was carefully crafted and the unique ending (I won’t spoil it for readers) left me, and many of those I spoke to after the curtains closed, feeling more American than ever.

The production team clearly put an incredible amount of work into every detail of the show. Katie Yamaguchi’s costumes dazzled. The scenic design by Matthew Miller and the lighting by Shawn Butcher created a sense of space that effectively directed audience attention to different sections of the large stage, allowing people to follow the action with ease.

The music, directed by Christopher Ertelt, and sound design by Carl Park, went above and beyond to take the audience on a journey that left them feeling a wide range of emotions—from the frustration of the debates in Congress to the bitter loneliness of separation. Though all of the vocal performances were wonderful, Elyse Langley (who played Abigail Adams) stood out from the musical ensemble with her operatic voice. Langley’s voice is so beautiful that by the end of each of her numbers, I was nearly in tears.

It’s hard to find anything to complain about in Media Theatre’s production of this light-hearted historical musical. 1776 will make you laugh, might even make you cry, and will most certainly be more enjoyable than the lectures of your middle school history teachers.

[Media Theatre, 104 E State St., Media, PA] April 13-May 22, 2016; mediatheatre.org

Read another Phindie review of 1776.

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