Spring Lake Theatre Company’s production of 1776 is an unqualified success taking a great play and giving it the treatment it deserves. As a reviewer, I have to confess 1776 happens to be one of my two favorite musicals. I watch the film every year. I saw the Broadway revival some years back. I even own a copy of the script. So I am predisposed to liking this show, but that is not an automatic pass for the review; after all we’ve seen bad productions of good shows over the years. But in this case, I am pleased to write that the Spring Lake Theatre Company’s production of the show lives up to the expectations I have for this material.
For those unfamiliar with the show, it tells the tale of the struggle by John Adams, Ben Franklin and Thomas Jefferson to persuade the rest of the Continental Congress to vote for independence. The historical political intrigue is gripping enough that this would be a great play even without music. That this music happens to run the gamut from fabulously entertaining to hauntingly serious makes the show all the stronger; and it has a lively script that knows how to find laughs in the material while undermining the serious parts of the plot. But as this is a review of Spring Lake’s production, let’s discuss some of the highlights specific to their version.
First and foremost is Greg Schweers deft performance as John Adams. Adams in this play is a difficult role, besides being the primary protagonist on stage for almost every scene, we are told from the beginning that Adams is “obnoxious and disliked” and the audience needs to see why his fellow Congressmen feel that way about him, yet at the same time he is the story’s moral center and so the audience needs to identify with him and feel his passion or the play doesn’t work. Schweers hits all of these notes and as such the play soars.
I also have to give high praise to Loretta Boyle as Abigail Adams. Throughout the play, we see the Adams’s writing letters to each other, which through stage convention are sung back and forth although the actors never touch so we see never lose sight of the distance between them. Boyle sings her part with great passion giving the play a strong romantic element that is often lost in lesser productions of this show.
The casting in general is excellent. I appreciated how most of the cast used dialects consistent with the states they represented. This uniform excellence in casting extends even to the smallest roles in the play. For example, the character of Martha Jefferson is for the most part extraneous to the plot. She shows up in one scene, kisses her husband, comes downstairs to sing with Adams and Franklin and then we never see her again. Yet Spring Lake has cast a fine singer in Natalie Auch to fill the role so that her song is yet another highlight in a production full of them.
Likewise, Brandon Flynn as the young Courier bringing dispatches from George Washington’s army to the Congress speaks and sings in only one scene, but that song is a show-stopper as he gives a haunting and powerful rendition on the horrors of war in “Momma Look Sharp.”
Lest one think the play is all gloom and doom, let me assure the reader that the lighter songs in the play are just as well-staged and performed. Indeed the song “But, Mr. Adams . . .” is the epitome of everything fun about musical theatre as an art form.
The small comedic roles are also well cast with Jeff Skalecki’s Richard Henry Lee leading the pack with another terrifically fun song early in the play.
The director also needs to be praised. This is a show with a large cast--you have between one to three representatives for each of the 13 colonies often all on stage at once, and yet the staging managed to take what could be a crowded stage and kept all of the action coherent.
While I don’t usually do letter grades or star ratings in my reviews, let me assure you that if I did this production would be a clear “A”.
1776 runs until May 12. Spring Lake Theater is located at 300 Madison Avenue in Spring Lake. For ticket information call 732-449-4530.