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Theater’s Signature Show Marks 75th Anniversary

LTA makes "1776" sing again.

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From left to right: Keith Miller (Thomas Jefferson), Jim Carmalt (Benjamin Franklin), J. Robert Powers (Stephen Hopkins), Mick Tinder (John Adams), and B.C. May (George Read).

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From left to right: Mick Tinder (John Adams) and Jim Carmalt (Benjamin Franklin)

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From left to right: Jim Carmalt (Benjamin Franklin), Keith Miller (Thomas Jefferson), Christopher Guy Thorn (Robert Livingston), Mick Tinder (John Adams), and Marcus Fisk (Roger Sherman).

The Little Theatre of Alexandria has been putting on shows – either fully staged or simple readings – for three quarters of a century. They have learned how to do it. Often they do it very well indeed.

Over the years, one show keeps showing up on their schedule. The historical musical comedy/drama/romance of the founding of our country, "1776," has come to be their "signature show" and they take it up again in a solid, satisfying production directed by Frank Shutts II.

Of course, they haven’t been mounting versions of this show for all 75 years. It was only written in the late 1960s (for the historically minded: it opened on Broadway on March 16, 1969) and it wasn’t made available for production in community theaters for nearly a decade.

LTA’s first mounting was in its 1975-76 season with a production considered a part of the nation’s bi-centennial celebration. That version was so successful, it was reprised as the opener of the 1976-77 season.

They returned to the piece ten years later with another production marking two seasons – it ended the 1985-86 season and then kicked off the 1986-87 set. In 1999 they took it up again as their way to celebrate Alexandria’s 250th anniversary.

Now, with Mick Tinder in the central role of John Adams, the debates in "foul, fetid, fuming, filthy Philadelphia" over the cause of American independence come back to life again. Tinder makes the audience understand the frustrations and commitments of Adams, who may well be "obnoxious and disliked" but who is also passionate and an effective champion of his cause, while some of the performances of cast members playing other key members of the Continental Congress are less fully formed but nonetheless effective.

Jim Carmalt is a bit subdued as Benjamin Franklin, a role that still holds fond memories for long time LTA subscribers who recall the job Don Neal did with the part a decade ago. Carmalt’s Franklin seems a bit tired as – at age seventy, he was the oldest member of the Congress. Keith Miller’s work as Thomas Jefferson takes a while to gather steam – perhaps as the real Jefferson might – but by the end of the first act, when his wife Martha joins him in Philadelphia, and early in the second when he bears the torment of many amendments to his draft of the Declaration of Independence, he takes on real passion.

With a cast of twenty-four men and two women, it is the voices of the women that often remain in memory after the show ends, and this production is no exception. Andrea Klores is Abigail Adams and her duets with Tindal include the most exquisite notes in the show, the lingering "Yours, Yours, Yours" that sealed their correspondence that bridged the 266 miles separating Philadelphia from the Adams farm in Quincy, Massachusetts. Liz Sabin as Martha Jefferson delivers a spirited description of the charms of her husband in "He Plays The Violin."

Standout performances as members of the Congress come from Jon Keeling as Richard Henry Lee, who is portrayed as something of an egotistical fop in "The Lees of Old Virginia," and Chris Gillespie, as Edward Rutledge of South Carolina, who gives strong voice in "Molasses to Rum" for the argument that all sections of the proposed new country bear some responsibility for the "peculiar institution" of slavery.

From the opening number when John Adams sings about the Congresses record ("piddle, twiddle and resolve, not one damn thing do we solve") while the rest of the members sing full throatedly "For God Sake, John, Sit Down!" to the final inspiring moment of the signing of the declaration, the show portrays the founding moments of our nation movingly with humor, passion and honesty.

<i>Brad Hathaway reviews theater in Virginia, Washington and Maryland as well as Broadway, and edits Potomac Stages, a website covering theater in the region (<a href=http://www.PotomacStages.com> www.PotomacStages.com </a>). He can be reached at<a href=mailto: Brad@PotomacStages.com> Brad@PotomacStages.com</a>.</i>