by Matthew Falduto
photos by Jackie Jensen/IC Pixx
Coralville – I doubt many of us spend time each day thinking about being an American, but burning within all of us who live from the New York Island to the Redwood Forests is a fire of patriotism. It’s important to remember and reflect on that essential part of ourselves. City Circle’s production of the musical 1776 offers one such opportunity as it chronicles the efforts of the Second Continental Congress to create the Declaration of Independence. The show is filled with patriotic moments, well presented by a cast of strong singers.
The protagonist of the musical is John Adams (Adam Nardini), who is “obnoxious and not well liked” by his fellow delegates. Ben Franklin (Gary Benser), a more genial man, is his ally and uses quiet manipulation to move the cause of independence forward in contrast to Adams’ bombastic nature. Adams’ antagonist is John Dickinson (Joshua Fryvecind), who is pushing his fellow delegates to stay with England. The book doesn’t spend a lot of time delving into the motivations of its characters, focusing more on the big issues of history, and consequently the story is not as compelling as it could be. Nevertheless, the musical has a lot of humor and heart and the actors do a great job of showing both.
Benser is wonderful as Franklin, earning many laughs from an appreciative audience with his excellent comic timing and sly smile. He also shows his dramatic chops when he castigates Adams over the issue of slavery. Benser is easily the most fun character to watch, and as an added bonus, is the spitting image of Ben Franklin. Nardini, who memorably portrayed Javert in TCR’s Les Miserables a couple of years ago, creates an impatient and passionate revolutionary. It’s easy to dislike the character – the musical practically begs us to do so – but fortunately Nardini does an excellent job showing his humanity in the scenes with his wife, Abigail (Mary Denmead). It doesn’t hurt that both Nardini and Denmead are excellent singers. Their version of “Till Then” is lovely.
A number of the supporting actors are impressive when they get their moment to shine. The highlight of the show for me was the song “Mama Look Sharp,” which was sung by Brandon Burkhardt, a sophomore at West High. Burkhardt has a powerful voice and he sings with a wonder and a melancholy that strikes deep into your heart. He is nicely accompanied by Brett Borden and Sean Harken. Borden often steals scenes as the cranky custodian, Andrew McNair.
Another great moment in the show is the song “Molasses to Rum” which is sung by Edward Rutledge (Dustin Davaldo). The song points out the hypocrisy of the Northerners who criticize the slavery of the South while still benefiting economically from it. Davaldo has a rich deep baritone and performs the song with passionate intensity, creating one of the few tense dramatic moments of the show.
One of the funniest parts of the show is the song, “The Lees of Old Virginia,” which allowed Nick Oswald, portraying the dandy Richard Henry Lee, to flex every comic muscle he has (and he has a lot of them). Oswald was so captivating as Lee, I was sorely disappointed that his character disappeared for the entire second act. Later in the show is a rather fun song, “But, Mr. Adams,” which involves lots of clever choreography and much humor as they settle on Thomas Jefferson (Ian Goodrum) to write the Declaration of Independence. Finally, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the wonderful Lindsay Raasch, who shows off her excellent pipes as Martha Jefferson in the song “He Plays the Violin.”
The technical aspects of the show are well done. The costumes are gorgeous and appropriate for the period, taking into account each of the characters’ home colonies. For instance, Rhode Islander Stephen Hopkins (Robert Steger) was much more simply costumed than Virginian Richard Henry Lee, who epitomized the word ‘dandy.’
Andrew Bielinski’s lighting design was magnificent. I can’t recall the last time I have seen lighting used so effectively throughout an entire musical. Usually in our area’s shows, there are one or two moments that stand out. In 1776, the lighting was consistently used throughout the production to add emotion and bring intensity to the scenes. One specific moment where the lighting worked especially well was the first scene with Adams and Abigail. Standing on either side of the stage facing the audience to show their physical separation, one was covered in blue light and the other in red, the patriotic colors emphasizing that which separated the lovers.
Director Elizabeth Tracey is to be commended for bringing out the best in her actors and her excellent use of the space. Her smart direction emphasized the humor and highlighted the emotion of the story. My one criticism of the production is that it is long, clocking in at over three hours. I wondered if the pace couldn’t have been increased to keep things moving. While the fact that the Second Continental Congress was moving slowly is central to the plot, a musical needs to keep a lively pace.
The final moment of the play brought home the importance of what we were seeing – the birth of our nation, brought about by men, flawed and real, who strove toward a future brighter and better than what they had. City Circle’s 1776 offers us a moment to reflect on our history, on what our country has become, and perhaps encourage us to strive for a better future too. The show runs through May 8. Tickets are available here.