In an incredibly busy July, I was excited to get the chance to make a run down to Bakersfield to check out an almost-new theatre company in the South San Joaquin Valley. Ovation Theatre is the new iteration of the Spotlight Theater, which years ago had me traveling down to see some stellar productions, including The Pillowman, The Goat, or Who is Sylvia, the musical Little Women, and an eerie subterranean production of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.
This time I made the trek to see Kat Clowes as John Adams in an all-female production of 1776, which has apparently created something of a stir in Bakersfield.
Ovation Theatre and its new administration now has a full season of shows under its belt that included megahit Legally Blonde and the lesser known Bonnie and Clyde. Their 2018-2019 season includes a wide variety of musical fare: Dreamgirls, Forum, Jekyll and Hyde, A Christmas Carol, Spring Awakening and A Chorus Line. Sure, they’re walking a line between old-school audience-pleasers and some newer, more ambitious fare, and a few of these shows are desperately in need of an overhaul. But considering the way they handled their 1776, I’d say even their Forum stands a good chance of being accessible without being musty.
And as for that 1776: it is a delight.
From what I’ve gleaned, the all-female casting has turned some heads in the area, but in my view it rather enhances the themes of the play. If you’re of a liberal persuasion, the sight of women debating politics and policy, morals and responsibility in the public sphere is a natural sight. If you’re obsessed with current politics, this production fits in with the sight of women marching in the streets and women registering people to vote. If you’re of a conservative bent, I get the hesitation. But at some point, when watching 1776, the women simply become actors.
And when the rest of the theatrical world has spent the last decade balancing the male-female ratio at Shakespeare Festivals and regional theaters all over the country and given us all-female Julius Caesars and gender-bent Oklahomas, doesn’t Bakersfield want theatre that can walk that line between accessible to general audiences and forward-thinking? I hope they do!
Ovation’s 1776 plays with more than the casting pool, however. Director Maria-Tania Bandes Becerra Weingarden deconstructs the design and breaks the fourth wall repeatedly in the production. The cast don elements of 18th century clothing at the top of the show, work all of the audience entrances, walkways and vom corridors to inch the performances closer and closer to the audience. It all has a twinge of Brecht to it, which makes it less quaint than one expects of the musical. It also tones down a goodly portion of the sentimentality some audiences may possess about the Founding Of A Nation and focused more on how rag-tag and improvisational the whole process of declaring independence from Britain was.
There are a few elements to the script that do, in fact, seem behind the times simply because they are. At the time of 1776‘s inception, Thomas Jefferson’s image was that of a sensitive European sophisticate who was a great lover and far too refined for Colonial life – practically a Byronic hero but with proper morals. The fact of Jefferson’s enslaving hundreds of people was an unfortunate footnote, his profound lack of morals regarding Sally Hemmings and his selling several of his own progeny at the auction block, all hushed up in terms of his legacy. Until the 1990s, when proof became available in the form of DNA testing. It becomes hard to square our current knowledge of Jefferson with the delicate portrayal of Jefferson in 1776. But this is what it is to shake the must off of an old piece. You take the good with the bad and you make the most of both.
The places where Ovation makes the most of the good are plenty, however.
The score is incredibly well-sung, making the most of the all-female range from the variety of women on the stage. And since women do come in all shapes and varieties, vocal director Michelle Weingarden-Bandes squeezes out every low note she can find and the sound fills out exceptionally.
The group work in Independence Hall is grounded by the focus and presence of such ensemble players as Bree Halton as John Hancock, Jennifer Neil as John Dickinson, and Stephanie Jean Schmidt who pulled McDuty as McKean and McNair, taking an apron on and off so many times in a scene I got dizzy for her. Also an honorable mention to Kiera Gill as James Wilson for understanding her character’s function and arc in a play so well, the critical voting scene crackled with tension.
In terms of musical numbers, the opener “For God’s Sake, John, Sit Down” gets things off to a rousing start and the songs where Abigail and John Adams sing their letters to one another are delivered with such a light touch, they give goosebumps, as they are designed to do. The first act is full to brimming with numbers intended to delight and to further plot, but are a little “donuts for dinner“.
It’s the second act where the real meat is. “Momma Look Sharp” is a showstopper when there’s still almost a whole act to go. Attention must be paid to Ireland Varner whose clear, bright voice soars but contains that strain of mournfulness that speaks of the destruction to come for young boys across the Colonies. And Rutledge’s big number “Molasses to Rum” is given a powerhouse treatment by Weingarden-Bandes, that in lesser hands would have been hammy. Her tremendous voice is paired with some of the strongest choreography, imagery and lighting design in the show.
Clowes, however, gives the most layered and fully realized performance of a character I’ve seen from her thus far. Her Adams is annoyed, stubborn, and irascible, yes. But some of Clowes’ own irrepressible optimism is laced throughout the character, connecting each moment, until Adams reaches his “Is Anybody There” at the end of the second act. Sung with simultaneous force and desperation, Clowes’ channels an Adams alone, single-handedly trying to communicate, once and for all, the vision he’s been sharing. It is such a powerful performance in its simplicity, that I didn’t need the projected fireworks behind her. Clowes was giving us plenty of her own.
Overall, Ovation produced an interesting, thought-provoking piece of theater, freshening up what can be a musty old classic. Like most community and semi-professional theater in the Valley, they are a training ground and working with a wide range of experience and talent. This 1776, though, is a fine example of how community actors and high expectations can merge to create something exciting.
1776 runs Fri, Sat, and Sunday matinees through July 22nd.
Click here for tickets and info.