City Circle’s ‘1776’ filled with excellent performances; could be streamlined


Coralville Center for the Performing Arts — through May 8

1776 at City Circle Acting Company
Nick Oswald as Richard Henry Lee; Gary Benser as Benjamin Franklin — photo by Jackie Blake Jensen Photography

City Circle’s 1776 opened to a mostly full house last night, rife with families, sponsors and excitement. The story of the conception of the United States is well-known, and this musical tells that tale of grumpy, sweaty delegates caught between independence and servitude, and how they overcame their differences to give birth to our nation.

Gary Benser was wonderful in the role of Benjamin Franklin — a shameless and charming lover of ladies, a scientific genius full of confidence. He had wonderful comic timing throughout, allowing for some good belly laughs. It was easy to see how an entire congress would regard him with such respect. Ian Goodrum’s Thomas Jefferson had a quiet and honest quality to him. His interpretation of this historic man was infused with a subtlety that helped the audience to understand how he was able to give us the poetic and fair (at the time, as was necessary for Independence) Declaration we know so well. I enjoyed watching his interchanges with the others, and his vocals were spot on.

The women, Abigail Adams (Mary Denmead) and Martha Jefferson (Lindsay Raasch), gave very fine performances. Abigail had a beautiful voice and a witty yet subtle quality that was a good counter to John Adams’ constant anxiety over Independence. She exuded a tolerant nature — a mother and wife, but always his equal in intellect. Martha had an intoxicatingly sweet sound in an adorable, light-footed package. Though we didn’t have her on stage for long, I felt like Martha was our own version of a historical Kristen Bell: charming, talented and sweet (I love me some Kristen Bell — however, Raasch might be the better singer). The audience was treated to pitch perfect singing and lovely sly smiles from both the women in the show.

1776 at City Circle Acting Company
(L-R) Benser as Franklin, Robert Morris as Robert Livingston, Ian Goodrum as Thomas Jefferson and Emil Rinderspacher as Roger Sherman — photo by Jackie Blake Jensen Photography

The individual performances ranged from decent to wonderful. Adam Nardini lead the ensemble as John Adams would have lead the congress all those years ago — incessant needling with logic and passion. Nick Oswald’s Richard Henry Lee was full of energy and one could easily see the fun he was having. K. Michael Moore’s John Hancock provided a good level head, honest and righteous, to preside over the congress. Thomas McKean (Greg Kilburger) had a prideful posturing to match his Scottish heritage. Charles Thomson, the clerk played by Jo Anderson, had a booming vocal that expertly rode the line between commanding and informative. Edward Rutledge, played by Dustin Davaldo, let loose a solo line (in a beautifully melodic syrupy voice) during the second act opening number that left me excited to hear more — and he didn’t disappoint. Pennsylvania’s John Dickinson (Joshua Fryvecind) oozed with a half-British attitude of fear and elitism. Brett Borden’s, Andrew McNair, the custodian, provided much needed comic relief and even a hint of tenderness.

The costumes were wonderful. Luxurious and eye catching. The wigs were wonderfully matched and styled. The set was also very well crafted and a nice theatrical replica of that hot room in Philadelphia. The lights were pretty, but felt overused at times. There were some technical difficulties with mics and feedback in the beginning, that were worked out as the show progressed. The orchestra and singing felt out of sync at times, possibly due to those mic issues from earlier in the show. Over all, after a couple of hiccups, the orchestra maintained a good sound throughout the show.

At least 20 minutes could have been cut from the production’s run time (on top of it, there was a 10 minute curtain speech — the audience didn’t leave the theatre until 10:42pm for a 7:30pm start time). The staging was simple and did the necessities but was generally underwhelming. There was a lot of meandering without purpose or reason. During the climactic, show-stopping song in the 2nd act, “Molasses to Rum,” there was a chilling quality in the sound of it, but Davaldo’s Edward Rutledge was unspecific in his movements, at best. He wandered around the room aimlessly, filling space with general action, which dimmed the impact of the tune overall. This show really needed to be moving at a clip, because the stakes of the situation were no less than the extreme of life and death. Men sauntered slowly and rarely interrupted each other, when it should have been more like modern day British Parliament — rowdy and active. At one point, John Hancock mentions wanting to join in the merriment … but there was very little merriment happening at the time. The second act opener, “Cool, Cool, Considerate Men,” was all about how organized and calm they were without John Adams and his rabblerousing in the room. However, it was more energetic than at any other time in the congress we’d seen to that point. Still, the use of movement during this song was by far the most effective in the show. The ensemble seemed present and willing, but underutilized overall.

1776 at City Circle Acting Company
K. Michael Moore (L) as John Hancock; Jo Anderson as clerk Charles Thomson — photo by Jackie Blake Jensen Photography

I couldn’t help but get a bit patriotic when Thomson read out loud, for the first time, “the army of the United States …” And the final tableau worked nicely. I liked how the show ended without a big final musical “wow” moment. It settles into its history. It lets the audience have a moment to process the story of the United States’ creation, and how far we’ve come since that moment, for better or worse.

There is a good show within this production. It was frustrating to see the potential there, but unrealized amongst the low-energy and lack of action — but the seeds are in there. If they can move with purpose and justify crosses, this show would tighten up immensely, and be a truly good night of theatre.

City Circle’s 1776 runs for five more performances: tonight, Friday May 6 and Saturday May 7 at 7:30 p.m., and Sunday May 1 and May 8, at 2 p.m. Tickets are $12–27.

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