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1776 at O’Connell and Company has a refreshing take on 50-year-old musical

THE BASICS: 1776, the 1969 Tony Award winning show (Best Musical) by Sherman Edwards and Peter Stone presented by O’Connell and Company, directed by Steve Vaughan, runs through May 19, Thursdays to Saturdays at 7:30, Sundays at 2:30 at The Park School, 4625 Harlem Road, Snyder. Wine and soda, bagged snacks, basket raffles (848-0800). Runtime: 2-1/2 hours including one intermission

THUMBNAIL SKETCH: “Wooh! There’s nothin’ like summer in the city” they sing in HAMILTON, but in the musical 1776 “the room where it happened” is the Pennsylvania State House (now known as Independence Hall) in Philadelphia and “it” was the discussion, collaboration, horse-trading, compromising and writing the United States Declaration of Independence, finally signed there on July 4, 1776. In this 2019 incarnation, 21 actresses play all the parts, which brings a freshness to this 50-year-old musical, as the big topics continue to be relevant. Our shameful history of slavery was top-of-mind back in the days of The Civil Rights Movement (Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. had been assassinated just 11 months before 1776 opened on Broadway) and it’s just as relevant in today’s #BlackLivesMatter environment. Back in 1969 the U.S. was divided over the Vietnam War as Republican President Richard Nixon had just begun his campaign of White House lies to the American people.  Passions in 1776 and in 1969 were running as high as in today’s political climate.

THE PLAYERS, THE PLAY, AND THE PRODUCTION:  Director Steve Vaughan has cleverly staged this large-cast musical in the small-ish Park School venue and has wisely placed the four musicians (ably directed by Don Jenczka) right in the middle of the action so that everyone can hear everyone else. Choreography by Terri Filips Vaughan ably keeps all 21 performers moving smoothly on the little stage. Nicely done. The scenic design, including a clever tally board, is by Matt Myers.

Some of Buffalo’s best comediennes take over lead roles, such as the foul-tempered John Adams brilliantly played Pamela Rose Mangus who was recently the foul-mouthed piano player in THE FULL MONTY as well as the cantankerous Falstaff in THE MERRY WIVES OF WINDSOR. She has collaborated many times with Mary Kate O’Connell who is sly and delightful as Benjamin Franklin, along with the dead-pan comic chops of Anne DeFazio as Thomas Jefferson.

But this is a musical, and Vaughan has wisely cast some gorgeous voices, including Melissa Leventhal as John Hancock, Sára Kovácsi as James Wilson, Melanie Klaja as the “manly” Richard Henry Lee, and Emily Yancey as Edward Rutledge. I could listen to them all day. Ms. Yancey, who last season presented a full recital of classical and operatic arias at Buff State, is the “real deal” and brought the house down with the dark and brooding “Molasses to Rum” description of the slaver’s “Triangle Trade.” Rounding out the very talented cast were Marta Aracelis, Marissa Biondolillo, Heather Casseri, Lauren Dewey-Wright, Vanessa Dawson, Michelle Holden, Mary Craig, Mary Moebius, Sara Jo Kukulka, Meaghan McDonald, Mira Haley Steuer, Priscilla Young-Anker, Sam Crystal, and Marie Olczak, all fully engaged.

Another star of this production is the costumes, right down to the shoes. Not only do the actors on stage mention the frightful heat that summer of 1776, but the heavy, brocaded, extensively layered clothes of the day provided by D.C. Theatricks (coordinated by Joey Bucheker) looked fabulous, and added to the realism.

My only quibble is not with the production, but with the structure of the musical. In the first act, there is a long (half hour?) segment of nothing but talk. The musicians just sit there on stage and nobody sings. Okay, I get it, we’re supposed to feel the strain on all the Founding Fathers giving up their careers, or farms, or families and feel the frustration of disagreement. But, for cryin’ out loud, this is a musical, folks, not virtual reality.

The use of an all-female cast works on a variety of levels. In this day of rising female political powers such as Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Ilhan Omar, Kamala Harris just to pick three, it really was a delight to see women in the role of “Founding Fathers.” Also, forgive the stereotype, but I believe that women are better at cooperation and compromise than men, and so the cooperation and compromise that it took to get to the signing of the Declaration of Independence seemed right. But one of the best aspects is that the 1969 play has several sexual innuendos that in that time would have been “naughty” and titillating but very acceptable to a 1969 Broadway audience in from the suburbs. In 2019, however, if those old jokes were voiced today by men, they would have been off-putting. But at O’Connell & Company, when women spoke those lines, it was funny again.

This is one well-rehearsed show and, as we say in the land of the four buffalos, “I would make a real effort to attend.”

Photos courtesy O’Connell and Company

UP NEXT: MEMORIES AND MARTINIS, starring Mary Kate O’Connell at the Park School, June 6-23 described as: “an intimate cabaret of songs, stories, love, laughter, banter, beverages and Special Guests!”

*HERD OF BUFFALO (Notes on the Rating System)

ONE BUFFALO: This means trouble. A dreadful play, a highly flawed production, or both. Unless there is some really compelling reason for you to attend (i.e. you are the parent of someone who is in it), give this show a wide berth.

TWO BUFFALOS: Passable, but no great shakes. Either the production is pretty far off base, or the play itself is problematic. Unless you are the sort of person who’s happy just going to the theater, you might look around for something else.

THREE BUFFALOS: I still have my issues, but this is a pretty darn good night at the theater. If you don’t go in with huge expectations, you will probably be pleased.

FOUR BUFFALOS: Both the production and the play are of high caliber. If the genre/content are up your alley, I would make a real effort to attend.

FIVE BUFFALOS: Truly superb–a rare rating. Comedies that leave you weak with laughter, dramas that really touch the heart. Provided that this is the kind of show you like, you’d be a fool to miss it!

Written by Peter Hall

Peter Hall

Peter Hall continues trying to figure out how "it" all works. For over 20 years, as a producer and program host on WNED Classical (94.5 FM), he's conducted over 1,000 interviews with artists as he asks them to explain, in layman's terms, "what's the big picture here?" These days Peter can be heard regularly on Sunday afternoons from 1 to 5.

On “Theater Talk” (heard Friday mornings at 6:45 and 8:45 a.m. on WBFO 88.7 FM) his favorite question of co-host Anthony Chase is simply "What's goin' on?" As mentioned recently in Buffalo Spree magazine, Peter's "Buffalo Rising reviews are the no-holds barred 'everyman's' take."

A member of Buffalo's Artie Awards Committee, Peter holds a B.A. in Comparative Literature from Columbia University and an M.B.A. from SUNY at Buffalo. For over twenty-five years he was an adjunct professor for Canisius College’s Richard J. Wehle School of Business.

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