I don’t think I can offer up 1,776 reasons to see Musical Theater Heritage’s production of Sherman Edwards’ musical, but I could probably give it a try. It might take more words than most people want to read, but let’s just put it this way — it’s a satisfying evening of great entertainment, a whole lot of history thrown in and Deb Bluford. This name alone should have everyone running, not walking, to the Off Center Theatre in Crown Center.
Bluford continues to reign as the queen of comedy, even when she is taking on the mannerisms and persona of one of America’s founding fathers, Ben Franklin. Bluford, in the intimate space of the Off Center Theatre, not only uses her wit, but her facial expressions. The audience is close enough to see all the silly grins that only add to the charm of Bluford. Playing the sort of foil to Karen Errington’s John Adams is also no small task. Errington is another venerable actress in Kansas City. She depicts the rough-mannered, but brilliant Adams. While not as well-liked or well-remembered until perhaps the recent mini-series, Adams probably pushed for a declaration of independence more than any man in the Continental Congress.
Errington captures Sherman’s lyrics and leads the cast of women with force and determination, befitting the male character she plays. OK, if you haven’t guessed it yet – the entire cast of “1776” is female. Typically, the cast for 1776 is made up of about 20 roles for men, and only two female roles. MTH Executive Director George Harter, Associate Producer Chad Gerlt and Director Sarah Crawford knew they wanted to try this musical. Crawford joked and said it might be funny to do it with an all-female cast instead. Gerlt says there are no crazy statements being made, rather since men always have had the chance to do the show, why not let the ladies have a crack at it? He said it might be a new and fresh voice.
I guarantee that it is a fresh voice. After a time, I forgot that the folks on stage were women. I found myself really enjoying the interplay between Errington and Sarah Kleeman, the mezzo soprano who plays Abigail Adams. First, as an audience member, you appreciate that Abigail makes John seem more human. He is a doting husband who misses his intelligent, thoughtful wife. As a side note, their correspondence may be some of the best reading that exists between a husband and wife. In the hands of Errington and Kleeman, the love affair is brought to life. It may strike some as a little odd, but it really works, especially with “Yours, Yours, Yours.” Kleeman’s voice fills the theater with a brightness that is awe-inspiring. The other couple that appears on stage, if only briefly, is Jessalyn Kincaid as Thomas Jefferson and Emily Shackelford as Martha Jefferson. Shackelford sings a sweet song called “He Plays the Violin,” which she sings with Franklin and Adams that tells of how Jefferson wooed Martha. It’s a super sweet song.
However, I’m going to stick my neck out there and say that there are two songs that are really head and shoulders above the rest. Fourteen-year-old Malena Marcase sings the first: “Momma, Look Sharp.” Here is where an all-women cast probably made this song resonate even more. Marcase plays the young courier/soldier and shares with the Continental Congress custodian Andrew McNair, played by Emily Harris, about battlefields and the young men calling to their mothers as they lay dying. The song is strong and Marcase, for all her youth, puts her heart into delivering this stirring piece. The added potency of the rest of the female cast (hidden behind a curtain) singing the parts of mothers searching for their soldier sons strikes a chord. It moved me to tears.
The second showstopper is “Molasses to Rum.” Katie Karel, I want you to know that you have a fan in this writer. I had the chance to see you sing in last year’s production of “Big River” and then at the Kansas City Repertory’s production of “Into the Woods.” Your voice is mighty. Listening to you belt out this piece about how even those Continental Congress members who were so against slavery owed so much to the practice, gave me goose bumps. Karel plays Edward Rutledge, the delegate from South Carolina. Rutledge could have stopped the declaration if the paragraph condemning the institution of slavery would have made it in.
The actresses all are amazing. I have to call out to two actresses who stole a little bit of the comedic gold that is usually reserved for Bluford. Allison Moody plays Richard Henry Lee, the representative from Virginia who put forth the motion to the Continental Congress to declare independence. She sings a song titled “The Lees of Old Virginia” that had the audience roaring with laughter. Retired teacher Cathy Wood plays Stephen Hopkins from Rhode Island. In the musical, Hopkins is a sort of cantankerous drunkard whose force of personality helps keep the Continental Congress together and Wood has fun with this role.
So there it is; I thoroughly enjoyed the musical. I have a feeling that from here on out, when “1776” comes on television, it will be a pale comparison to the unique and live production that Musical Theater Heritage offered up. Now, run … don’t walk to the box office for the performance of “1776.” Shows are 7 p.m., Thursdays; 8 p.m., Fridays; 2 p.m. and 8 p.m., Saturdays; and 2 p.m., Sundays. The musical is scheduled to end Aug. 29.