1776 at Playmakers Theater thru July 7
When 1776 opened on Broadway in 1969, it was a turbulent time.
Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy had been assassinated less than a year earlier.
The Vietnam War was raging.
Nixon had just been inaugurated that January.
A musical dramedy about the signing of the Declaration of Independence did not appear likely to be embraced be audiences when Hair, “The American Tribal Love-Rock Musical,” seemed to be charting a new course for future musicals.
Yet 1776 went on to a successful 3-year run and won three Tony Awards including Best Musical. In 1972, it was turned into a popular movie and enjoyed a critically-acclaimed Broadway revival in the late 1990s.
Nowadays, however, despite a fine book by Peter Stone and an alternately delightful and moving score by Sherman Edwards, 1776 can be somewhat problematical. As Hamilton has proven, even if a show is about a bunch of dead white guys (and a few gals) a little (or a lot) of creative casting makes sense.
Which brings me to Playmakers’ current production of 1776 in Covington.
Whether through artistic choice or casting necessities (I suspect it’s tough to find 23 guys on the North Shore who can act and sing and are willing to commit to rehearsals and performances), Playmakers’ version of the birth of our nation features mostly women and a few men as our Founding Fathers in its mixed-gender cast.
And you know what? It doesn’t really matter. These days we’re so used to gender-bending casting (and the actors are all quite convincing in their manliness) that we easily accept such an approach. In addition, following NOCCA’s superb all-female production in 2016 as well as other such revivals, doing 1776 with all or mostly women isn’t even a big deal any more (tho I would kill to see an all-star, all-female Broadway revival; how about Patti LuPone, Kelli O’Hara, Audra McDonald, Jessie Mueller, Idina Menzel, Sutton Foster, and Bette Midler as Ben Franklin?).
Director Mark Leonard delivers an entertaining production; nuances may be lacking and one wishes Leonard could’ve enlivened things a bit during the long stretches of debate in Act One, but he builds to a stirring finale.
Rachel Swords leads the Continental Congress as John Adams, determined to break America free from England. Sporting a proper Boston Brahmin accent and a suitably vinegary disposition, Swords, tho slight of stature, makes Adams a force to be reckoned with by creating a multidimensional portrait of this most complex character from exasperating statesman to wily politician to loving husband.
Swords sings with potency although her voice thins out at times. Her angelic timbre, however, adds a quality to Adams that no man could provide.
Beth Harris creates a vivid Benjamin Franklin, sly and randy, but also witty and wise. Suzanne Richoux galvanizes the stage as a fiery Edward Rutledge, the South Carolinian who reveals his colleagues’ hypocrisy in the boldly unsettling song Molasses To Rum.
Also noteworthy are Paula Leffmann as Thomas Jefferson (tho I’d wager it’s the first time Jefferson has been played by someone who’s also appeared as Martha in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?); Stacie Eirich who not only conveys Abigail Adams’ intelligence but also a tender love for her husband John; Kathy Gibbs, unwavering as the Loyalist John Dickinson; and James Michel as James Wilson who ultimately decided the course of history–it’s a small but vital part and Michel plays it extremely well. Group numbers, when the two dozen voices come together as one, are especially good.
Perhaps the most memorable part of Stone’s script is the fierce debate about slavery among Adams, Rutledge, Jefferson, Franklin et al. and the terrible compromise that was made which still resonates today. Recently, as the House passed the Senate’s necessary but imperfect $4.6 billion Border Bill, I couldn’t help but think that not that much has changed.
As you watch our nation take shape on Playmakers’ stage, knowing what’s going on in Washington today, you may rightly conclude we have a flawed–deeply flawed–system of government. But it’s arguably the best one to come along in the last 243 years. Happy 4th!
Greenwich (Mean) Time
They say “He who is tired of London, is tired of life.” I say “He who is tired of London, hasn’t been to Greenwich yet.”
If you’ve seen most of the things in the center of London, a visit to Greenwich, one of its outer boroughs, makes for a thoroughly enjoyable day trip. It’s easy to reach via overground trains, tho it does help if you go with someone, as I did, who knows exactly how to get there.
In addition to spectacular views of the Thames and the ever-changing skyline on the other side of the river, Greenwich offers five major points of interest, though you should leave time for exploring the town itself and, especially, its open air market filled with tchotchkes to buy and yummies to eat.
Of those five tourist destinations, two stood out for me.
The Old Royal Naval College had been where Britain’s naval officers trained from 1873-1998 but, before that, it had been the Royal Hospital designed by Sir Christopher Wren at the request of Queen Mary II. This grandly imposing charitable institution housed and cared for men who had served in the Royal Navy. Its magnificent scale was intended to reflect the wealth and power of Britain as the world’s dominant maritime force.
The centerpiece of the Hospital is the Painted Hall, known as the United Kingdom’s Sistine Chapel and built as a huge, dazzling ceremonial dining room. Painted by James Thornhill, the large main ceiling celebrated Britain’s political stability, commercial prosperity and naval strength.
We took a tour of the Hall and lucked out with a lady who really made it come to life. She told how Thornhill had to fight to get paid, described all the symbolism (religious, mythological, etc.) in the imagery of the Baroque ceiling, and clearly laid out the history and court intrigue (some involving Queen Anne of The Favorite) behind the Hall’s creation. What was supposed to be a half hour tour turned into an hour-long one, and we hated to see it end. Before leaving, of course we tried on some of the “handling objects” that reference items in the painting, a great photo op.
From the Hall, we went to Skittle Alley, a basement area similar to a bowling alley, which came to be in the 1860s to give Pensioners some relief from the boredom of life within the Royal Hospital. Little has changed in over 150 years and, if you don’t mind setting up the skittles (pins), you can bowl a few frames with heavy bowling balls that were once practice cannon balls on lanes made from the decking planks of old ships. Very cool.
We then made our way to the beautiful neoclassical Chapel that features a nautical motif design that made the Naval Pensioners, some who had started service as teenagers, feel at home. There’s a sleekly stylish oak, mahogany and lime-wood pulpit; a marvelous organ that’s still used on a daily basis; and a splendid altarpiece by the American artist Benjamin West depicting St. Paul’s shipwreck on the island of Malta, the only one of West’s paintings to remain in the same place for which it was commissioned.
We finished with lunch in the café, part of a two-year, $10 million renovation that was just completed in 2017. Near the café, you can glimpse the foundations of Greenwich Palace, Henry VIII’s former royal home; the remains of one cellar room seems to be where beehives were kept during winter months.
We left the College and passed through the National Maritime Museum and saw a fabulous Royal Barge (if you’re into boats, by all means explore all its holdings) en route to the Royal Observatory where I was able to straddle the iconic Meridian Line with one foot in the east and one foot in the west. If you’re a fan of timepieces and telescopes, you’ll want to tour the Observatory and perhaps check out one of its planetarium shows.
Instead, we opted to head to The Queen’s House, a small but stately 400-year-old royal villa designed by architect Inigo Jones, which houses a remarkable collection of portraits of Tudor and Stuart Kings and Queens (Henry VIII, Elizabeth I, the aforementioned Queen Anne plus lots of noblemen with hair so big as to make any of those ‘80s bands like Twisted Sister, Whitesnake or KISS look tame by comparison).
Sprinkled throughout The Queen’s House are contemporary artworks which subtly comment on and enhance their surroundings. For example, a stunning and atypical Kehinde Wiley canvas, Ship of Fools, of four people adrift in a small boat, makes a damning point about current migration policies.
Knowledgeable docents, a gorgeous spiral staircase, mid-century portraits of hunky seamen, and a free admission policy all add up to make The Queen’s House an absolute gem.
Greenwich also houses the Cutty Sark, the world’s fastest tea clipper currently celebrating its 150th anniversary, but we just enjoyed views of it from afar; I figured I could tour such a ship the next time the Tall Ships come to town.
While some of the things you may see in Greenwich might hark back to the time when the British were the enemies of us Americans, nowadays it makes for a fun and fascinating visit in the friendliest of surroundings. Happy 4th!
It seems like it will be an especially quiet July theater-wise, but here are some shows that will be providing cool entertainment in this hottest of months.
Next up at The New Orleans Shakespeare Festival at Tulane will be Hamlet (Lupin Theatre, July 12–28), arguably the greatest play ever written (tho King Lear has my vote). Clare Moncrief directs a cast including James Bartelle, Casey Groves, Sam Malone, Cassie Worley, and Patrick Bowen as the melancholy Dane.
The Shakespeare Festival will also be bringing back Leslie Castay’s delightful musical cabaret, The Food of Love, for two Sunday evening performances, July 14 and 21. Food of Love features songs from musicals and other works inspired by the Bard.
Next door at Dixon Hall, the Summer Lyric Theatre at Tulane continues its season with She Loves Me (July 11-14), directed by Michael McKelvey and choreographed by Jaune Buisson. This delicious musical has lyrics by Sheldon Harnick and music by Jerry Bock, the team responsible for Fiddler on the Roof.
Inspired by Miklós László’s Parfumerie, the same play which was the basis for the movie You’ve Got Mail, She Loves Me tells the story of perfume shop employees Georg and Amalia who, despite constantly bickering at work, are unaware that each is the other’s secret pen pal met through lonely-hearts ads. Rich Arnold, Bob Edes, Jr., Meredith Owens, Dody Piper and Bryce Slocumb star in this charming show.
Very different from Shakespeare and classic musicals is Clean Squad: An Antiseptic Adventure in which an intrepid team of cleaning supplies–savvy Spray Bottle, grouchy but wizened Uncle Sponge and mighty Detergent–battle against Evil Germ.
Prescription Joy, a New Orleans organization that brings healthcare clowning, which uses humor and human connection to aid in healing, to patients in hospitals and other such institutions, will present two public performances of this original work at Trinity Episcopal School (1315 Jackson Ave.) on July 19 and 20. Sounds like fun!
Please send press releases and notices of your upcoming shows to Brian Sands at firstname.lastname@example.org.