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Opinion: Patriotic spirit thrives in Pittsburgh Public’s ‘1776’

February 21, 2013
By SARAH REED - Special to the Weekender , The Herald-Star

PITTSBURGH - Upon entering the main floor of the auditorium in Pittsburgh's O'Reilly Theater, a brick-laden path awaits to immediately transport patrons to colonial Philadelphia to witness one of the most momentous events in American history, as Sherman Edwards' musical account of America's venture to achieve independence from England, "1776," continues its run.

Wonderful portrayals, a score of compellingly patriotic tunes and a set featuring an awe-striking turntable abound - but unfortunately so do some unfortunate flaws.

Agitatedly listening to the petty debates flying about him as numerously as the flies which buzz around the sweltering Continental Congress chamber, Massachusetts Delegate John Adams proposes an unthinkable issue - to vote upon obtaining independence from England. Already known in Congress as "obnoxious and disliked," the resolute man becomes even more of a nuisance to many of his unlike-minded colleagues and even to those who can normally tolerate him as he journeys toward emancipation from the English. His endeavor, though fraught with heavy turbulence and discouragement, reaches an ultimately satisfactory resolution when on July 4, 1776, the Declaration of Independence is signed.

As the central warrior for America's independence, George Merrick's John Adams is cartoonish in grandeur as he flamboyantly rallies, with large, jittery gestures and elastic facial expressions, against his incessant barrage of naysayers. Merrick's Adams does elicit a great deal of sympathy, however, especially when paired with Trista Moldovan's endearingly warm, enticingly determined and lovely-voiced Abigail Adams, who appears only as a manifestation of Adams' mind when he is desperately in need of solace and companionship.

Steve Vinovich as Adams' long-suffering companion and fellow advocate of liberty from England, Benjamin Franklin, provides the production with firm sobriety and sagaciousness; while Keith Hines brings a youthful gentleness and an occasional occurrence of indignant self-righteousness to his portrayal of the quiet intellectual Virginian, Thomas Jefferson.

Looming with formidable power, New Zealand-born actor Hayden Tee as pro-slavery South Carolinian Delegate Edward Rutledge, masterfully commands attention even as he sits quietly and erectly at his desk with his lips in a subtly mocking smirk and his eyebrows set at a sarcastically cold arch, listening amusedly to Adams' tireless demands for freedom. Tee's unmitigated authority erupts disturbingly as he passionately delivers Rutledge's hypnotic ballad "Molasses to Rum," in which Rutledge reminds the fervent abolitionist John Adams that Massachusetts is still very much involved in slave trade. Darren Eliker's interpretation of Pennsylvanian congressman and relentless English loyalist John Dickinson establishes an unquestionably potent tone throughout the musical, especially as he unyieldingly attempts to control Jeremy Czarniak's mousy fellow Pennsylvania Delegate James Wilson; and John Scherer's irrepressibly chipper Virginian Richard Henry Lee brings an immensely enjoyable comic presence to the production.

Also enriching the musical with all-too-brief appearances is Eric Meyers as the Courier, who delivers George Washington's intensely disheartening war dispatches to the Congress. During a moment of quietude when the young travel-weary messenger is allowed to rest in the congressional hall and relate his battlefield experiences, Meyers delivers an absolutely heart-breaking rendition of "Momma, Look Sharp," in which the Courier unleashes his mournfully tender yearning for his far-away mother to rescue him from the possibility of dying while performing his dangerous work.

Although an undeniable shakiness in a few of the performers' executions of the musical's choreography and blocking, and some unbelievable and undesirable portrayals hinder the production from attaining its full potential, this musical retelling of our nation's freedom still attains a very deep connection with its audiences, especially as we witness the signing of our Declaration of Independence in the production's riveting finale, in which the Congress' rear chamber walls split apart to reveal a large rendering of the document. The palpable excitement felt in that moment and in the overall intimate immersion in the action of the production afforded by the O'Reilly's stadium-like auditorium, which has undergone an extreme transformation in order to bring America's history engagingly to the people, make the production worth attending before the congressional meeting disbands Sunday.

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