In a break from previous years summer concert productions, Dramaworks is staging a full blown musical for their summer theater. The Tony Award-winning musical 1776, is a timely and appropriate production for this wild and wooly election year and hot on the heels of Broadway’s Hamilton, although this is a different type of show. Opening on Friday, July 1, the show, written by Peter Stone (book) and Sherman Edwards (music and lyrics), runs through July 24 at the Don & Ann Brown Theatre, with specially priced previews on June 29 and 30 with direction by Clive Cholerton, musical direction by Craig D. Ames, and choreography by Michelle Petrucci, who also serves as assistant director.
Without making any changes, PBD is planning a reimagined and nontraditional production. Conceived by Edwards, who once taught American History at a high school in New Jersey, 1776 is set in Independence Hall in Philadelphia, where the Second Continental Congress, to quote Benjamin Franklin, “is trying to get a nation started.” That remark, along with the opening line uttered by John Adams and much of the narrative, springs from writer Stone’s imagination. (The musical aims to be emotionally honest but takes poetic license.) As the contentiousness and compromises of working toward creating and signing the Declaration of Independence play out, the Founding Fathers are no longer just towering historical figures, but real life, warts-and-all people. And despite the fact that the ending is never in doubt, the show manages to keep the audience in suspense – how will the various ideals of how a new country should be formed all come together?
The cast features, in alphabetical order, James Berkley, Gary Cadwallader, Clay Cartland, Michael Collins, Dennis Creaghan, Kevin Healy, Laura Hodos, Matthew Korinko, Mallory Newbrough, Nicholas Richberg, Troy Stanley, Sandi Stock, and Shane R. Tanner. All the actors, except the one portraying John Adams, play two roles, one a liberal and one a conservative, compelling them as well as the audience to see things from two sides.
During 1776 Rehearsal
I got a sneak preview during rehearsals at the theaters new large rehearsal space off Belvedere Road in West Palm Beach that has a full size mock up of the stage and a separate costume department run by Brian O’Keefe. The costumes are all hand made as well as of unusual designs due to the quick changes required. Normally these heavily corseted and buttoned up brocade dresses and men’s suits with frock coats are time consuming to take on and off, but they are custom made with magnets up the split front to enable the actors to simply pull them apart from the invisible seams and get into the next characters outfit quickly.
The designs are gleaned from various sources – history books showing images of the real people and from paintings, drawings and other period sources. Rich brocade, silks, braided trims, lace and accessories of hats and shoes all need to be matched together. There are stitchers hired specifically for this production and racks of costumes from several past productions in the side rooms. The costumes will most likely be displayed in the front of the theater’s lobby when the show is finished so theater goers can see the rich handiwork.
Here’s a Sneak Peek of 1776 Rehearsal
Artistic Director Bill Hayes says “We are back to a full scale production as in the scaled down summer musicals of the past audiences were not getting the true taste of the high production values and caliber of the work we are capable of. With an election year upon us, we felt it was time to do an emotionally charged show like 1776, but this is reimagined and tied into the contemporary scene. We made sure to hire the best design team and best music director for this type of large show.”
“Bill gave me a challenge and I embraced it, limitations and all,” says director Cholerton. “It’s a true collaboration with lots of listening and debating the merits of every decision. The show is complex as it starts in modern times then switches to 1776 very quickly. Most productions have 28 actors, we have 13 actors and each one plays a conservative character and a liberal character in a 2 to 3 second time span. We also embraced a cast that is multi-generational and multi-racial. We work with the actors to change how they move and speak so the two characters they are portraying are markedly different.”
When asked about the comparison to the Broadway hit Hamilton that mixes hip hop up with a story of American Founding Father Alexander Hamilton, Cholerton says “We were not really influenced by that, this is a different story and production. We are also trying to stage this from a cinematic perspective – how a camera would see this. It’s done by moving the stage perspective, lighting and a great design team of artists. Most of our run throughs address where the problems may come in so we designed this production to be more minimal with sets as it changes from Congress to the streets to Philadelphia. A big challenge was to create the room where Jefferson would draft the Constitution. The show was cast months ago but we’ve had to do all of this rehearsal in just three weeks. It’s never enough time but somehow it all comes together when we all step up to the plate.”
Evening performances are Wednesday through Saturday at 8PM. Matinees are Wednesday, Saturday, and Sunday at 2PM. Individual tickets are $65, with specially priced preview tickets at $45.
The Don & Ann Brown Theatre is located in the heart of downtown West Palm Beach, at 201 Clematis Street. For ticket information contact the box office at (561) 514-4042, open Monday from 10AM to 5PM, Tuesday through Saturday from 10AM to 6PM, and Sunday from 11AM to 5PM, or visit www.palmbeachdramaworks.org.