I’m a tease I know, once again I saw this show in it’s final weekend so that there are no more opportunities to see the production. However, this hidden gem, St. Croix Festival Theatre in St. Croix Falls, WI, is worth writing about, as well as their plucky, all female, production of 1776.
Let me start by saying that 1776 is possibly my favorite musical of all time. I was introduced to it at a convenient time, as I was learning American History in school and the characters (all based on the real Declaration signers of the Second Continental Congress) became real to me by watching the movie (yes on VHS) with the (then) young talents of William Daniels, Ken Howard, Blythe Danner, and the incomparable John Cullum as “Eddie Rutledge the youngest man in congress!” I became obsessed, I knew every line of every song. I was excited to learn more and with research discovered that a lot of the events, issues, even personality traits, portrayed in the musical were based on actual facts. I loved it even more.
It’s not pretty, but gritty. The music is beautiful, but often faces difficult topics; the triangle trade, the anti-slavery clause that was forced to be removed before the South would sign the Declaration, the letters from the front line dictated by General George Washington of gruesome deaths, freezing troops and starvation. It is certainly not a glamourous representation of the birth of our country, but despite the outbursts of song, an occasional waltz or minuet, it is surprisingly, a realistic one.
Imagine then, when I heard that this 30 plus person cast, with full orchestra, and grand proscenium, was being done in a black box with 14 women playing their own instruments! I had to see it. Sure I had my concerns, mainly HOW were they going to pull this off?
Well they did. Behind Seth Kaltwasser’s efficient direction, this talented group of women (some of them young women still in school) pulled it off and then some. I had a lovely time. Highlights include the dexterous way the ensemble (playing many of the smaller parts) changed costume pieces fluidly and unapologetically on stage. At one point, ensemble member Emma Brasher, simply circled John Adams (played by Karla M. Hughes) and played every single one of her 4 characters! It was hilarious and proved a very clever way to deal with the diminished cast size. The acting varied in experience but the three leads: Hughes, Chris Johansen and Marjorie Gast (Adams, Ben Franklin, and Thomas Jefferson respectively) were certainly the stand outs, (and my soft spot for Rutledge was honored by the vocal prowess and presence of Deanna Davis).
A few notable obstacles: I found out (after the show) that the company did not transpose any of the music and that the actors were signing, either the original score, or sometimes up the octave. This often didn’t work. By no fault of the singers, some of the songs were simply out of their range and the audience lost words, lost the weight or gravity of a certain piece, or technically disallowed them to perform at their best. This was frustrating for me and for some of the actors I’m sure. It’s hard to feel good about your performance when you’re stuck signing in your break, especially when this show is meant to be sung by men. It definitely lost a little something on those occasions the women’s voices went floating into the grid.
The blocking, although successful in such a small space, was a little pedestrian. I wanted to see the downstage and aisles used a little more adventurously. At the curtain speech, the director warned us that we were all sitting in “the Congress” and to be aware of actors moving around us. That didn’t happen as much as I had hoped. The production could have embraced the intimacy of the space more, and it would have been an extra inclusive experience. Minor details however, as I whispered along quietly with every note and left with a huge smile on my face.
Let’s talk about St. Croix Festival Theatre. There’s no doubt it’s a destination as it’s a 60-minute trip from Minneapolis proper. But the town is lovely, the historic falls a tourist attraction, the cafes and cute little bars all down main street are authentic, and then there is the theatre. The theatre has been a central focal point for the past 27 years! They have even raised enough money to begin major renovations on the old theatre that should be open in the next couple of years. It promises to be a beautiful new complex with proscenium stage, rehearsal and dressing rooms, a gallery in the lobby and an adjacent park, perfect for picnics pre-show! I am reminded of some of my favorite summer stock days in rural Maine where a company of actors put up a bunch of fun shows and became part of the community. SO much fun. In the meantime, the Franklin Square Black Box is an intimate alternative for the company to produce things like Rumors (The Neil Simon piece which opened this past weekend), and Lillian Hellman's The Children’s Hour among the rest of their ¾ season.
The bottom line is that I was charmed, not only by the gutsy accomplishment of their 1776, but by the entire atmosphere. I recommend making a day of it and enjoying all this quaint little town has to offer. Who doesn’t need a break from the fast-paced city, take a trip up past Turner’s Falls for a lovely day of nature, rural appeal, and quality entertainment. And if you (like me) were ever a theatre intern in the middle of nowhere...be prepared to be very nostalgic.