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Aldersgate’s Musical 1776 Recreates Nation’s Birth

July 11, 2002

Opening on a scorching Fourth of July afternoon in the Aldersgate United Methodist Church’s mercifully air-conditioned Wesley Hall, the musical “1776” began with the delegates to the Continental Congress breaking into song, debating the pros and cons of opening a window (breeze vs. flies) and urging Massachusetts delegate John Adams to sit down.

The actors and actresses in full costume had greeted the members of the audience as they arrived in the lobby and conversed with them while staying in character. Then, as the performance began, the players of the Aldersgate Church Community Theatre brought 19 delegates, the custodian of Congress and his assistant, a courier and both Abigail Adams and Martha Jefferson to life for a two-week run.

The Sherman Edwards, Peter Stone musical does a good job of putting the complex and confounding issues that faced the founders in Philadelphia in entertaining and understandable focus without oversimplification or belittling the proponents on either side.

For this production, director Dru Vander-Linden got solid and satisfying acting from the entire cast. The quality of the singing ranged from exquisitely beautiful through merely serviceable but was, on the whole, quite good. It was supported by a 14-player orchestra under Philip Momchilovich. At times the orchestra drowned out some of the weaker voices, but the lyrics that were most important to the success of the story were clearly delivered.

THE SUCCESS OF any production of “1776” rests squarely on the shoulders of the actor tackling John Adams. It is a role that requires a strong, clear singing voice and the ability to pull off light comedy, passionate argument and intensely romantic emotional moments. In the casting of this production, Aldersgate has Bob Ashby, who sang clearly and made Adam’s political and romantic passions clear.

Yes, John Adams had romantic passions. The script includes three scenes drawn from his correspondence with his wife, Abigail, that are presented in song with Abigail on stage but clearly present only in John’s mind. These three scenes, with the beautiful themes of “Till Then” and “Yours, Yours, Yours,” providing the musical connection, give the show heart. Janice Codispi sang the part beautifully.

Codispi wasn’t the only actress on the stage with a lovely voice. Marie Wakefield sang Martha Jefferson’s explanation of the attraction of her soft-spoken husband, “He Plays the Violin,” giving it all the lilt of a Colonial aire of the time.

Both Ben Robles’ Benjamin Franklin and Dominic Traino’s Thomas Jefferson were clearly defined performances, and there were earnest if somewhat softly sung performances in the roles of Richard Henry Lee (John Day) and Edward Rutledge (Ronnie Hardcastle). At the other end of the spectrum, George Redden’s deep voice filled the hall with the haunting “Momma Look Sharp.”

Jim Howard and Ernie Sult were most impressive in supporting roles. Howard, as Pennsylvania delegate John Dickinson, made the pro-crown position of the American loyalists fully understandable, showing that the founding fathers had complex issues to resolve. Sult had the relatively minor role of Rhode Island’s delegate, Stephen Hopkins. Peter Stone’s script uses Hopkins in key segments to either insert some levity or to clarify the relationships between the factions. Sult’s Hopkins was amusing early on as his preference for rum and his irreverent humor lightened up some of the scenes but his pain from the guilt he felt over the role of Northern shipping concerns in the slave trade set up the song “Molasses to Rum.”

“1776” continues this Friday and Saturday at 8 p.m. and Sunday at 3 p.m. at the Aldersgate United Methodist Church, 1301 Collingwood Road. Tickets are $12 and $15. Call 703-619-6063.