Presented by The MIT Gilbert and Sullivan Players
Music and Lyrics by Sherman Edwards
Book by Peter Stone
Directed by Emma Brown
Vocal Direction by Tom Ostrowski and Johnnie Han
Orchestra Directed by Julie Henion
Review by Danielle Rosvally
(Cambridge, MA) 1776 is one of those archaic mainstays of musical theatre that gets some seasonal adoration around the patriotic holidays of summer and spends the rest of the year hiding in its box waiting for people to remember how catchy the good songs are (and forget how atrociously lingering the bad ones get). It’s also got some technical and social difficulties: the cast is large; dare I say ungainly; and made almost exclusively of men. Costuming the show is serious business since it’s a period piece (rarely modernized). And the script… oh the script… the script has not aged well. Sherman Edwards wrote some poppy songs that still captivate, but Peter Stone’s book is definitely a product of its time. Once again; the good parts are great. The bad parts just linger a little too long. Last, but certainly not least, the show attempts to tackle some very dark eras of American History and doesn’t exactly do it in the best possible way.
MIT’s Gilbert & Sullivan Players have put together a more than serviceable production of this epic American musical. They have made the bold decision to cross-cast many of the roles; giving us a gender-blind congress of infinitely more complex vocal range than the traditional all-male cast can lend. I have to say that the depth these voices were able to give to the many group numbers was simply delightful and I’ve never quite heard the music performed this way before.
For that, there was a bit of finessing that had to be done with the score to support this casting choice that didn’t really happen. Anna-Constantia Richardson plays a fiery John Adams, but the part just doesn’t sit comfortably within her range (and nobody did anything to fix it). As a result, she was forced to Rex Harrison a great deal of her many musical numbers, and suffer through the rest despite the key being nearly impossible for her to reach. I’m certain the actress has a lovely singing voice, but unfortunately it wasn’t at all showcased in this production and poor Richardson was left to struggle without the appropriate support. I am all for cross-casting, and I think it was a particularly engaging choice in this production, but it needed more work from the vocal/musical directors in order to effectively function.
Those who were allowed to soar through their songs in their own range were astoundingly talented. J. Deschene has an unexpectedly incredible set of pipes put on beautiful display in Abigail Adams. Meghan Jolliffe twitters and flutters through her dual roles as Martha Jefferson and George Read (lending soprano intonation to the congressional numbers). In perhaps the most unexpected turn the production took, Sara Haugland plays Thomas Jefferson as a soprano which worked far better than I could have ever imagined. Haugland was gentle yet firm in the role; as necessary to propel the play along. Michael DeFillippi shines particularly brightly in the delightfully doddering and quixotic Benjamin Franklin. Cynthia Goodman is a brilliantly beleaguered John Hancock. Deborah Gaz has an understated power in Charles Thompson. Tyler Crosby is sarcastic, calm, and the epitome of cool in John Dickinson.
The staging wasn’t exactly inspired; but this show is a veritable geometry problem. How, after all, do you fit that many actors on one stage? This production was staged in a particularly tight space and for that limitation I think it worked out tolerably well. This production seemed to toe the line between theatrical “realism” and full camp. Some of the numbers, such as “The Less of Old Virginia” teetered just on the border of “THIS IS A MUSICAL!” and “alright, we know it’s campy, let’s laugh it out together.” I think the production could have gotten a lot more leverage if it had made the conscious decision to go one way or the other (particularly in the moments that warranted such treatment).
I will say that I enjoyed being treated to this afternoon of theatre. I will also say that the weekend’s heat and humidity made it particularly easy to sympathize with the melting congressmen constantly complaining about it being “hot as hell in Philadelphia.” I will be eagerly anticipating the Gilbert & Sullivan Players’ next dalliance in drama and I highly encourage you readers to do the same.