Sunday, July 3, 2016



          Clive Cholerton for President?  Why not?  At PALM BEACH DRAMAWORKS he's taken a musical play, "1776," which in two previous productions I'd seen, seemed artificially sweet, saccharine, and rather static.  Mr. Cholerton turned the work into a masterpiece.  If he can do that in West Palm Beach, maybe he could do it in dysfunctional Washington, D. C. (?)

          "1776," a multiple Tony Award winner when originally produced in 1969, is the story of America's Founding Fathers who, after considerable cantankerous and lengthy debates in and out of the Anteroom of the Continental Congress in Philadelphia, in July of 1776 finally signed the Declaration of Independence, the document which, citing Britain's abuses, informed the world that the United States of America was freeing itself from the British Empire.  This was historic.  Never before in world history had such an event occurred.  (By sheer coincidence, in late June of this year the British, for similar reasons, voted to separate themselves from the European Union.  Leading up to the Brexit, as it was termed, were debates as contentious as those in 1776 America and the ones darkening our 2016 Presidential election).

          Several factors contributed to making this production different from its predecessors:  It occurred to both Director Cholerton and PBD's Producing Artistic Director William Hayes that this year's tumultuous election echoed what had happened at our country's creation.  Some issues were closely related.  In 1776 the main issue was slavery.  In 2016 "Black Lives Matter".  Also, the original production called for 28 players.  The PBD stage isn't large enough to accommodate such a number nor could Dramaworks afford to hire so many.  Thus Mr. Cholerton was left to "re-imagine" the play script.  Now there are 13 actors, some of whom portray multiple characters, both "liberal" and "conservative," and a small onstage band.  I'll quickly add that everyone in this cast is outstanding.  At play's end, the entire audience rises as one to cheer and applaud.

          At the play's beginning, onstage screen projections (excellently chosen by Sean Lawson) of Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton highlight the rancor of today's campaigning and immediately connect with the squabbles of 1776.  Then enter the Founding Fathers: John Adams; Thomas Jefferson; Benjamin Franklin, among them.  This is basically an ensemble play except for John Adams, whose inner thoughts and interactions with his wife Abigail permeate the proceedings.  As Adams, Gary Cadwallader exudes star and leadership qualities.  His acting leaves no doubt that someday Adams will become President, and his singing voice excels.  Abigail is portrayed by Laura Hodos, who also is John Hancock!  That she is outstanding in both roles is testimony to the complexity and the excellence of this production.  Nicholas Richberg is both John Dickinson and Richard Henry Lee.  As Lee, his energetic solo dance early in Act One (Choreography by Michelle Petrucci) is a highlight.

          If Act One be light in spirit, introducing the characters, their distinct personalities, foibles and issues, Act Two is more serious.  Not everyone wants to sign the Declaration of Independence.  Some are still loyal to Britain.  Some are slaveholders.  To them "Molasses to Rum to Slaves," as sung by Edward Rutledge, (Shane R. Tanner,) slavery is a legitimate part of business.  John Adams is at last asked to write the Declaration, but he defers to Thomas Jefferson (Clay Cartland), who rather reluctantly accepts the responsibility.  (Reluctantly because he owns slaves?)  Most of Act Two is a solemn debate as to what will go into the Declaration, which has to be signed unanimously if it is to be passed.  Despite the fact the ending is known, the last several minutes of the play are suspenseful.  Who will hold out, and why?  And for how long?

          Two things need to be said:  The American Declaration of Independence and the Constitution which later followed are cornerstones of the United States and what it means to be an American.  Every schoolchild and every adult should know these living documents of a free people.  Secondly, I do wish I could name all participants in this production.  All deserve recognition.

          The play has its weaknesses.  Sherman Edwards' music and lyrics are so integrated into the show that audiences will hardly be able to hum or sing any of the songs.  Playwright Peter Stone's book is strong, but several of our Founding Fathers were true geniuses.  Their gathering in one place at the same time  borders on the miraculous.  The play script deals more with their eccentricities than it does their brilliance.

          Jefferson was an accomplished architect and an Ambassador to France.  He later helped to persuade the French to join the American cause.   As third President of the United States, he purchased from France "Louisiana," now the mid-section of our country.  His sponsorship of the Lewis and Clark expedition brought America to the Pacific Ocean.  Benjamin Franklin, very well portrayed here by Allan Baker as something of a roue, was an earlier Ambassador to France.  Writer, printer, newspaper publisher, businessman, he gave America its postal system.  He invented bifocal glasses and a fuel-efficient stove which is named after him and which he did not patent, since the stove was created for the benefit of the people.  He helped found a hospital and    a philosophical society, both still in existence in Philadelphia.  He experimented with electricity in a scientific quest unique for its time.  Again, I have neither the space nor the inclination to describe everyone's quite amazing achievements.

          The end of the play brings out American audiences' patriotism.  Where 1776 and 2016 sharply differ is that neither Donald Trump nor Hillary Clinton are in the same league as the Founders.  The production is so

good you might indeed find yourself asking, "Why not Clive Cholerton for President?"  Anyway, his insights and the talents of all concerned are definitely worth viewing.

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