By Mary Damiano
I don’t usually review shows in their closing weekends, but when a production like 1776 comes along, well, to crib a line from Arthur Miller and this show, attention must be paid.
As a history buff, 1776, which details the events leading to the signing of the Declaration of Independence, has always been one of my favorites—the film version is a staple of my July 4th celebration. Palm Beach Dramaworks’ 1776 is both timely and inventive, and shows how little has changed in 240 years.
Director Clive Cholerton has employed a clever concept for this production of the patriotic musical, giving it a prologue and epilogue showing that politics in these Untied States has been a combative, even dirty, business since day one. And, in order to stage a traditional musical with a large cast and still keep within a modern budget, Cholerton double and even triple-cast his ensemble, with an interesting twist: nearly each actor plays a representative on each side of the argument for American independence.
I’ll admit I was skeptical about how that would work. But all doubt was gone within the first few minutes. The casting idea comes off seamlessly in show. The production is so energetic that there is always something to draw focus while an actor is slipping out for a quick costume change in order to make an entrance as someone else. Sometimes the change is even faster—several times Matthew Korinko, who plays delegates James Wilson and George Read, delivers his line, changes his coat onstage and delivers the next line as the other character. The production is so well done that there is little confusion in these character changes, and the whole thing is fascinating to watch.
There’s not a weak link in the cast. Gary Cadwallader delivers a bravura performance as the impassioned, independence-obsessed John Adams; Allan Baker’s Ben Franklin is affable but with an edge. Nicholas Richberg is hilariously flamboyant as Richard Henry Lee and sternly villainous as John Dickinson. Laura Hodos is John Hancock, but her gorgeous soaring voice is really showcased as Abigail Adams. Clay Cartland is at his brash best as Thomas Jefferson. And Shane Tanner, playing slave-proponent Edward Rutledge, nearly stops the show with his powerful, spine-tingling performance of Molasses to Rum.
There couldn’t be a better time to see 1776. Because in this tumultuous political climate, in which no one is certain about where the country is going, it makes sense to see how it all began and be reminded of the principles that lead to the founding of the United States of America.
1776 runs through Sunday at Palm Beach Dramaworks in West Palm Beach. For more information and tickets, visit PalmBeachDramaworks.org.