By Rita J. Egan
With talented actors, period-appropriate costumes and a detailed set, a theatrical production can make audience members feel as if they have traveled back in time. This is certainly the case with the John W. Engeman Theater’s production of “1776,” which opened last week.
Before there was “Hamilton,” there was “1776.” The classic musical, with music and lyrics by Sherman Edwards and a book by Peter Stone, debuted on Broadway in 1969 and was turned into a movie in 1972. Dramatizing the efforts of John Adams to persuade his fellow delegates of the Second Continental Congress to vote for American independence, “1776” focuses on the last weeks leading up to the signing of the Declaration of Independence.
The first lines by Adams, played by James LaVerdiere, help to set the tone for the musical: “I have come to the conclusion that one useless man is called a disgrace — that two are called a law firm — and that three or more become a Congress.” With this quote as well as the opening number “For God’s Sake, John, Sit Down,” the audience discovers that while the musical discusses a serious matter, it is delivered with a sense of familiarity and a good dose of humor.
LaVerdiere perfectly captures the frustrations and persuasiveness of Adams, who his fellow delegates describe as obnoxious and disliked. The scenes between him and Jennifer Hope Wills, who plays Abigail Adams, where the Massachusetts delegate imagines conversations with his wife, allow the audience to learn of the struggles of the women who were left at home dealing with sick children and failing farms and business. During Act 1, the two deliver a sweet and touching version of “Yours, Yours, Yours,” and we discover a softer side of Adams.
When Thomas Jefferson, played by Michael Glavan, yearns to go home to see his wife, we meet the second of only two female characters, when Adams sends for Martha to come to Philadelphia while Jefferson works on the Declaration of Independence. Portrayed by Adriana Milbrath, the actress delivers a delightful “He Plays the Violin” with LaVerdiere and David Studwell, perfectly cast as the charming and witty Benjamin Franklin. Glavan is a strong vocalist, too, who audience members have the pleasure of hearing during “But, Mr. Adams” and “The Egg.”
A surprise standout performance comes from Matthew Rafanelli, playing the disheveled courier delivering messages from George Washington. In the beginning of the play, it’s understandable if one thinks he has a small part, but by the end of Act 1, Rafanelli delivers a perfectly executed “Momma Look Sharp.” His heart-wrenching vocals on the song, which details the loss of young boys on the battlefield, left many with tears in their eyes during the press opening last Saturday night.
It should also be noted that Robert Budnick playfully portrays a cheerful Stephen Hopkins, and Tom Lucca perfectly captures the authoritative nature of John Hancock. Special mentions should be made of Jon Reinhold (Richard Henry Lee) who plays the cocky Virginian with a great deal of humor, Benjamin Howes (John Dickinson) who provides strong lead vocals on “Cool, Cool Considerate Men,” and Peter Saide (Edward Rutledge) who delivers a powerful “Molasses to Rum.”
Igor Goldin has expertly directed the cast of 25 actors, who should all be commended for their strong vocals and mastering of a great amount of dialogue. Due to the craftsmanship of all of those involved in Engeman’s “1776,” the dreams of our country’s forefathers come to life once again.
The John W. Engeman Theater, 250 Main St., Northport, presents “1776” through Nov. 6. Tickets range from $71 to $76. For more information, call 631-261-2900, or visit www.engemantheater.com.