Review: MMAS brings history to musical life with '1776'

The cast of the MMAS production of '1776.' (Submitted photo)

SHARON - Anyone who believes history can only be taught through lectures and text books has not had the pleasure of seeing a production of "1776," a lively musical tribute to Independence Day.

Winner of several Tony nominations in 1968, the historical musical by Sherman Edwards and Peter Stone puts a human face and voice to America's birth in 1776. Being performed by Mansfield Music and Arts Society through Sunday, July 11, this performance is truly one of the best history lessons that I have ever sat through.

The MMAS production is being staged at the Unitarian Church in Sharon rather than the Black Box Theatre in Mansfield. A historic meetinghouse, the church provides the perfect setting for the production with only a few minor sight line impediments.

This MMAS production directed by Judy Kotta and performed by a talented cast helps to bring to life some the great names and voices of America's history including, John Adams (portrayed by Ken Butler), Benjamin Franklin (Pete Molitor), Abigail Adams (Jennifer Mischley), John Hancock (Ted Koban), and Thomas Jefferson (Brian Gustafson). It also highlights some of the lesser known authors and signers of the Declaration of Independence, such as Richard Henry Lee (Daniel Kozar), John Dickinson (Michael Dowd) and Edward Rutledge (Kevin Mischley).

The characters have their own distinct personalities, and also personify the states they hail from.

The musical numbers are performed with great exuberance by the entire ensemble. From the opening number, "For God's Sake, John, Sit Down" with Butler as Adams and the cast of Congress, to the last one, "Is Anybody There?" performed by Butler, Molitor, Gustafson and Rick Concannon as Secretary Charles Thomson, the audience is drawn into the frustrations, the debates, and finally the exhilaration that gave birth to America.

Other performances that will strike are chord are the musical renditions of the love letters between Abigail and John Adams. Mischley brings a touch of sweet and some tart to her character of Abigail as she shares with John the woes of staying back in Massachusetts with sick children while he is in Philadelphia. These letters may be considered the most romantic love letters of their time, and when sung by Butler and Mischley, the depth of their love shines through - particularly in "Till Then" and "Yours, Yours, Yours."

Among other musical highlights in the first act include a lively rendition of "The Lees of Old Virginia" with Kozar as Lee and Molitor and Butler as Franklin and Adams. There is also a humorous look at the early "right wing" conservatives with "Cool, Cool Considerate Men" performed by Michael Dowd with help from Glen Fournier, Kevin Mischley, Joseph Luca, John Schumacher and Lance Wesley. Dowd leads the group with the clear, cool confidence of his character.

Also enjoyable is the lovely soprano vocals of Jodi Mulcahy as Martha Jefferson as she sings a tongue-in-cheek rendition of "He Plays the Violin," accompanied by Butler and Molitor. Kudos to Karen Anderson for her delightful choreography in a tight space.

The first act concludes with the poignant and beautifully sung rendition of "Momma Look Sharp" by Matthew Dowd and son Michael Dowd. This song is timeless in that its lyrics convey the hardship of war for those who serve and their families, whether it is the Revolutionary War or the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

One character that stands out in this production, thanks to his witty performance and fantastic wig, is Molitor as Benjamin Franklin, who at times is baudy but mostly forthright in his delivery. It is the pithy Franklin who helps forge a compromise on slavery that finally brings the Declaration to fruition.

In the song "Molasses to Rum," Rutledge (Kevin Mischley) defiantly points out the hypocrisy of the Northern states insisting on freedom for all in America while participating in the Triangle Trade. The song is a musical highlight of the second act with a stupendous performance by Mischley.

As he walks off the stage, you have to wonder at how the Declaration of Independence ever got signed. But it does finally get signed after much debate and compromise, and Act II concludes with each of the statesmen coming forward to put his signature on the document that we celebrate ever year.

This lively production is a must see.

"1776" is being staged at the Unitarian Church is Sharon through July 11. All evening performances are at 7:30 p.m. with one matinee on July 11 at 2 p.m. Call MMAS at 508-339-2822. Tickets are $22 general, $20 seniors, and $18 for students under age 18. Visit www.mmas.org for more information.

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