This happy merger of Kirk Wood Bromley's spirited script (with musical snatches) and lively performances makes for a breezy, laugh-out-loud couple of hours on Wade Oval, directly behind the Cleveland Museum of Art. Bromley has crafted a look back at our country's first war that fairly bursts with inventiveness, comic wordplay, and Shakespearean riffs. Just listening to the playwright's words is akin to a verbal whitewater ride down the Colorado River. Whether he's going for a fast chuckle (a Brit describes Benjamin Franklin's coonskin chapeau as "your furry cap of stinking rodent flesh") or being trenchantly observant ("Decency is weakness in a soldier"), Bromley's edgy wit tumbles over itself without ever getting in its own way. And the result is exhilarating.
It all begins and ends, of course, with George Washington, who is considered a bit of a dip by the Continental Congress, a man not fit to hold the scabbard of that successful warrior, General Benedict Arnold. But John Adams twists some arms, and ol' Mahogany Mouth is named leader of the rebels' ragtag army. From there, it all plays out as one might expect in terms of plot points (you hardly need to be a history buff to keep this well-known story straight). But this production offers up a delightful surprise in almost every scene, thanks in large part to director David Hansen's ability to inspire and support a bundle of fabulous characterizations.
Brian Pedaci is a stone-cold Yankee Doodle stud as Benedict Arnold, posturing with all the gruff bravado of a much-lauded general while revealing a chip on his shoulder the size of Rhode Island. His intricate and humorous speech about being "second" to General George is a treasure. He's more than matched by Magdalyn Donnelly as his wife, Peggy, a devious woman who's plotting fast and furiously to make sure she winds up in bed, literally, with a winner. Donnelly is also a delight as the rather daft Lord Cornwallis. Indeed, all members of the company are cast in multiple roles, and almost everyone excels. Mark Cipra morphs from a wise and perceptive John Adams into a sleazy boatman and then into a hangman who has a noose-tight hold on his gag (pun intended) lines; speaking to his next victim, he inquires with studied practicality, "May I have your forgiveness? And your boots?"
Playwright Bromley wisely adds some comedy breaks to the proceedings, most of which are led by a cowardly troubadour named Johnny Freeman, who is played with dazzling precision by Ray McNiece. Gloriously butchering the language -- at one juncture, he tells his compatriots to "hide in the vegetables," meaning the roadside foliage, and later bids them to "emerge from the roughage" -- McNiece masters every malaprop and coaxes many laughs from his character's desire to avoid battle at all costs. Equally amusing in a much smaller role is Cat Kenney as the egocentric turncoat, British soldier Charles Lee, spitting out his contempt for the colonists (mocking Benedict's complaints, he sneers, "He's crinklin' up his nappies into a fluffball!"). And when offering an ultimatum of leadership, Kenney nails the choice: "Chief Charles Lee or rebel-balls kabob?"
Also excellent are Andrew Narten, performing a Germanic send-up of the supposedly hapless army; Matt Zitelli as a besotted recruit who undergoes a hilarious onstage amputation; and Margi Herwald as the idealistic Lafayette. The only major performance that falls short of superb is William H. True in the less showy role of George Washington. Saddled with a number of well-intentioned but somewhat overwritten speeches, True makes Washington solid and noble, but never fully engaging (although his speech to the frigid, starving troops at Valley Forge raises goose bumps).
Indeed, if the author has a flaw, it is falling too much in love with his wonderful words. There's a lot there to appreciate, but some judicious cutting would give his work more impact and avoid a flabby, anticlimactic sequence of concluding scenes. Even so, there is more electric theatricality in this production than in most other shows, indoors or out.
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