From left: Jonathan Verge as Edward Rutledge, Julie Frew as Joseph Hewes, Anthony Helm as Lyman Hall, Anne Downey as George Read, Da-Shih Hu as Lewis Morris, Becky Bailey as Robert Livingston, and Steve Alden as James Wilson. (Alex E. Taylor Photo)
By Sharon Groblicki, Standard Correspondent
What a pleasure it was to be in the Briggs Opera House in White River Junction once again, where so many musicals have been enjoyed by so many people.
This time, however, was really special because the quality of the production was every bit as professional and glorious as we had come to expect, but this one had a director and a cast that was entirely from the Upper Valley.
Veteran Director Perry Allison, whose vision and passion inspired this production of the Broadway award-winning musical, “1776,” has created a truly wonderful piece of theater. But it is more than just theater. Under the broader scope of “The 1776 Project,” she has assembled a cast of, as she describes it, “local artists who share a love of musical theater and a real passion for the ideas and themes of the play.” There is a website for the project and questions for the discussing of current issues as they relate to the themes of the play. Each night a different local politician or clergy member or visionary comes to discuss these themes and questions with the actors and audience participating.
The 26-person cast includes seven women who play the roles of men. They are each totally convincing in their roles. The cast as a whole resonates with passionate acting and singing skills.
This is entirely an ensemble production and so there are not the traditional two leading roles, but the action often centers around the interaction among the trio of John Adams (Taylor Hooper), Ben Franklin (John Severinghaus), and Thomas Jefferson (Peter Mendes). Each is delightful in his individuality of character and they all perform their songs with strong vocal presence and cunning characterizations. Severinghaus is particularly memorable in his role as the bawdy, sarcastic and irreverent Franklin, and he has a rich deep bass voice that is perfect for Franklin’s character.
Jen Langhus, playing the role of Abigail Adams, is winsome, beguiling and delightful in her portrayal of a woman who is in love with a man whose passion rends itself more toward politics than in her direction. Her voice, which is pure and clear, rich and enchanting, reaches out and draws the audience to her.
One of the most stunning moments in the play is when the teen-aged courier, who has been delivering messages with a stony-faced efficiency, has a small scene where he describes being in a battle in which three of his friends were killed. In the song, “Momma, Look Sharp,” he tells of his loss in a vocal rendition so poignant, so clear and unfettered that it is breath-takingly moving because of his complete lack of artifice. The role is played by Gunner Langhaus, who also plays bass in the band and whose mother plays Abigail Adams.
Without exception, every member of the ensemble was completely individual as each fleshed out a true historical figure and sang together and separately with totally individual and completely convincing vocal presentation. One particularly challenging song, “Molasses to Rum” was sung by Jonathan Verge, playing the role of Edward Ruttledge. With passion and rage, he lashes out at the smug Northern delegates who favor the abolition of slavery, calling out their hypocracy because of their support of an economy that is fed by slavery, even if they are not slave owners.
Hettie Tomae, sitting next to me, whispered that it was she who put the sixth grade Verge on stage in the role of little Joe in NCCT’s first teen production, “Tom Sawyer.” He went on to get a BFA at Syracuse University and study at the Globe Theater in London, and he is now Director of Choral Music and Dramatic Arts at Lebanon High School.
The cast also included people you have seen in Revels, on the stage of Pentangle’s Town Hall Theater, in NCCT, Parish Players, Old Church Theater and Opera North. They are US. I left with a feeling that I had seen a great piece of theater but also with a great surge of local pride.
Holly Levison’s costumes were perfect and each one helped mold the character of the wearer. Holly is another local wonder. She has created costumes local for YOH and Pentangle and also for many other local theaters.
Perry Allison’s vision was to provide not just this piece of theater but the whole package of the 1776 Project so that in these times of political divisiveness we can see that there is passion behind both sides of the divide. She would like to provoke thought and discussion so that we can come to terms with this historical reality. She has done that, but she has also provided us with a piece of glorious, exciting, and excellent musical theater.
“1776” wraps up this coming weekend. For tickets and information, visit: the1776project.org.
“1776” is directed by Perry Allison, with scenery by Opera North Scenic, Samantha Lazar; costumes by Holly Levison; and lighting and photos by Alex E. Taylor.
This is an online version of the article that originally ran in our April 5, 2018, edition.