The Santa Barbara Civic Light
Opera's production of 1776 is a humorous look at the personalities,
debates, intrigues, and compromises surrounding the second
Continental Congress, which produced The Declaration of Independence.
There is a single elaborate set with floor almost to ceiling panels
that are, for the most part, shuttered windows, although someone is
always shouting at the custodian, McNair to open them for air, or
close them because of flies. We have beautiful antique wooden tables
and chairs for the delegates of the various colonies, a tally board
of the colonies for their yea or nay votes on independence, and two
chandeliers. There is a big date calendar at the back that tracks the time.
John Adams tells us that two men together are a law firm, and three or more is a Congress. He rails to the skeptical group about the need for independence. Adams is passionate, obnoxious, and disliked, and the Congress shouts him down in "For God's Sake, John, Sit Down." That seems to be the only thing this group can agree on, though. Senate Majority leader, Trent Lott recently described the Republican Caucus during the Impeachment Trial as "like herding cats." That's exactly what this group is like from start until almost the finish. In his duet with Abigail, James O'Neil's Adams is as tender and loving, as he is strident and powerful everywhere else.
We move to the mall. A screen of shutters is placed in front of the Congressional chamber, and variations of that are the only changes from the main set. It's simple, but effective. Fred Lehto's Richard Henry Lee is brash and confident as he struts with Ben Franklin and Adams in "the Lees of Old Virginia," before riding off to get the consent of the Virginia Legislature to vote for Independence.
Thomas Jefferson is quiet and reluctant to write the Declaration of Independence. He wants to go home to his wife. A bed, desk, and music stand are placed in front of the screen for his room. He tries to write, but plays the violin. Franklin has gotten his wife to come to Philadelphia and they embrace passionately as Franklin tells Adams, "We'll clean it up for history."
1776 is humorous and playful. It shows the lighter side of the debates for independence, but it also shows the deadly serious side. Cynthia Ferrer's Abigail Adams appears almost as a dream to John, to sing of the travails of being home with only the kids during the bitter winter. In "Momma Look Sharp" the reality of war hits home as Leather Apron sings of his two best friends who were killed on the same day by the British in Watertown, Mass. When they didn't come home for dinner their mothers went down to the green to find them. We have William Knight's outrageous Stephen Hopkins. The old Rhode Island delegate who knows it's a medical fact that a mug of rum gets the heart beating in the morning. They also have the realization that many might hang for treason. There are strangely humorous, but desperate communiques from George Washington about the status of his army. A puff of dust always flies up from the courier. These patriots like Adams and Richard Henry Lee have a nobility of character. They are men with deep passionate beliefs, who are willing to give their lives and fortunes for their ideals. We also have the greed of Dickinson and the conservatives who are in it exclusively for themselves.
"Molasses to Rum" is the the most powerful number in the show. South Carolina Delegate, Edward Rutledge objects to Jefferson's passage in the Declaration that abolishes slavery. Adams argues passionately that slavery will destroy the nation. Indeed he was borne out both by The Civil War and events of our own times like the Impeachment Trial. Christopher Carl's Rutledge is riveting as he sings of the hypocrisy of the New England slave ships sailing to Africa to bring slaves to Charleston. The stage goes dark as he's centrally lit in the dramatic highpoint of the production. After everyone walks out of the Congress, Franklin counsels that the nation should be built a step at a time. The compromise is made, and we are swept along to the climax.
Elise Unruh led the orchestra in this tremendous production of 1776 by The Santa Barbara Civic Light Opera at The Granada Theater.
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