Supporting the Arts in Western Massachusetts and Beyond

May 15, 2013


Wilbraham United Players, Wilbraham, MA
through May 19, 2013
by Shera Cohen

The musical “1776” is not often performed in community theatre, one good reason being that the cast includes 25 men. From the start, mounting this show is a huge undertaking. Add to the “crowd” on stage, the fact that not many are familiar with “1776” adds stress to the troupe to get decent size audiences. While Wilbraham United deserves praise for taking on the challenge, the results sometimes fall apart.

The plot is the one learned in elementary school – the founding of these United States – focusing on the personalities of the Declaration signers and set to song. Assuredly, there is much fiction, and at the same time a humanized history lesson. All of the usual suspects appear; i.e. Adams, Franklin, Jefferson, et al. There is not much opportunity to individualize the other 22 men.

Brad Shepard and his character John Adams hold the play together which is a difficult job because there are so many people onstage, let alone on very small stage. Little did the audience know that the original Adams was “obnoxious and disliked,” performed admirably and with intelligent humor by Shepard. Franklin (Paul Nesbit) and Jefferson (Brian Freeman), as Adams’ cohorts in creating a new nation, hold their own. Except for solos by South Carolina’s Rutledge (Jay Lee), Pennsylvania’s Dickinson (David Chivers), and Virginia’s Lee, the rest of the founding fathers just happen to be in the room. Color-blind and sex-blind casting has become familiar, yet casting some women in these roles was a mistake, even when desperate for actors to audition.

It’s probably a good guess that few readers have ever heard of the songs “Till Then” and “Yours, Yours, Yours.” Both are lovely warm duets and highlights of “1776” as sung by Adams and his wife Abigail (Teri LaFleur). In spite of the fact that LaFleur is only slightly visible as she stands behind a scrim throughout the play (why?), a mature romance comes through because of the ability of the two actors. Although a minor role, JohnMartin Patton’s courier sings a haunting “Mamma, Look Sharp.”

Director Deb Trimble, whose work has wowed audiences in the past, moves her actors at a very slow pace, oftentimes blocking each other. A good effort is made in costuming, although the ill-fitting wigs are distracting. Perhaps “1776’s” second weekend will pick up and/or sections cut and/or choruses deleted.