A Broadway caliber performance, with a live orchestra, in Pocomoke City? At the local high school? You betcha! The Eastern Shore Madrigals, a music and performing arts group out of New Church, VA, opened their rendition of 1776: The Musical this past Friday, reminding us that Congress has been riddled by ego and dysfunction since the very, and I do mean very, beginning.
But whereas today’s media outlets serve up spin like Micky D’s serves up 75 cent Big Macs, the history of the signing of the Declaration of Independence is a well-documented triumph of the American spirit, and the names John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, and Thomas Jefferson are forever ingrained in our psyche. And, trust me: cutthroat politicking is far more riveting when sung in harmony.
The play, written by Sherman Edwards and Peter Stone and originally debuted on Broadway in 1969, opens with John Adams (Shore native Marty Killman) pleading with the Second Continental Congress to declare independence from England. Adams is peeved that congress has done nothing but, get this, waste time! Through flawless renditions of “For God’s Sake, John, Sit Down” and “Piddle Twiddle,” the Madrigals waste no time jazzing up what these days just puts us to sleep (i.e., congressional ineptitude). Killman is excellent as Adams, and when the time comes that he finally sits, you start to miss him a bit. Fortunately, Adams and his long-distance wife Abigail (a wonderful performance by Christine Swift) message each other through masterfully woven duets, playfully (or is it?) showing that the future president is still just a man and the Mrs. is also equally endowed with certain unalienable rights.
Robert Forrester plays elder statesmen Ben Franklin, confidant to Adams, brandishing an arrogance and a semi-sleaze that you would expect from a casual member of the Hellfire Club. The pair’s political maneuvering is a pleasure to watch, and culminates in a conjugal visit for young Thomas Jefferson (Andrew Widger) and wife Martha (Heather McHenry) that gets Jefferson to draft the document that would, ahem, birth a nation.
Director Mark Tyler really plays up the personalities of the 13 colonies, serving them as foils reinforcing the complexities of such a negotiation. The members spar with each other as is typical to a congressional debate, which is great but not really what most of us plan for a Saturday night. But this is Broadway, er, I mean Pocomoke, and through song, humor, and a splendid cast there is magic that happens. Newcomer and Berlin author Jeff Smith shines as Colonel Thomas McKean from Delaware, sporting a thick Scottish accent while bickering, I mean, debating, with co-delegate George Read (Michael Teets). Coupled with Mike Jump’s role as Richard Henry Lee from Virginia, 1776: The Musical has funny moments that stem from endearing personality quirks rather than the all out political blundering you get today.
But the climax of the show, aside from miraculously garnering all those John Hancocks, is Crisfield’s Richard Thomas, portraying Edward Rutledge, the brash young delegate from South Carolina who vehemently opposes language condemning the slave trade. Rutledge’s soaring rendition of “Molasses to Rum” is a treat to watch, and can hardly be contained inside the school auditorium.
Backed by an excellent pit orchestra led by Chincoteague’s Pat Davis, the closing minutes of the performance deliver all the tension and suspense that you would expect from a moment of this magnitude. A moment in our history where consensus was reached, albeit just barely and not without grave concession.
The final three performances of 1776: The Musical are this Friday, June 17 at 7:30pm and Saturday, June 18 at 3pm and 7:30pm, at Pocomoke High School. Tickets are $12, and there is a Founding Father’s Day special half-off ticket price for father’s attending the Saturday matinee. Visit www.easternshoremadrigals.com for more information.