Laughter rings out from the grounds of Thomas Jefferson’s Poplar Forest, where a few cast members from the upcoming concert production of the musical “1776” have arrived for an interview.
Barely a minute goes by before the teasing begins and the jokes start to fly.
Lyrics are dropped in rapid succession along with a quip about how you’ll never see this many men onstage at the same time anywhere else in Lynchburg.
“It’s like being at summer camp,” says Jeff Price, who plays Benjamin Franklin in the Poplar Forest production, which begins its three-night run Thursday. “We call it Camp PoFo.”
The now-annual summer concert was born in 2014 after Price, a staple in the Lynchburg theater community, posted a line from “1776” on Facebook.
Leadership at Poplar Forest recognized the reference and decided to stage a concert performance of the Revolutionary War-era musical on the lawn behind the historic Jeffersonian house.
A musical comedy about the drafting and signing of the Declaration of Independence, “1776” follows John Adams, a delegate from Massachusetts, on his quest to convince representatives of the other 13 colonies to secede from Great Britain.
Now, six years later, members of the large cast have come and gone, but a select group of actors has remained, playing the same role every time.
“There hasn’t been one year that I’ve walked away and said, ‘OK, that’s over,’” says Karl Lindevaldsen, who plays John Adams. “Sometimes you go into a show and ... either the story just doesn’t hit you or the people weren’t the right fit. This one, it’s like, ‘Nope, can’t wait to see you.’”
The Lynchburg theater community is relatively small, so participants often know each other and overlap on productions, creating friendships through a mutual passion for performance and shared rehearsal experiences.
But working with the same people over and over as they play the same roles in the same musical has forged an even greater bond among the core cast members of “1776.”
“When we do other shows together, there’s a special bond,” says Tanya Anderson, who plays the fiery yet compassionate Abigail Adams, who serves as the heart of the musical. ”Karl and I have done several things together outside of this. ... Sometimes we’ll be doing something and I’ll be like, ‘I’ve been married to him for five years’ and then his wife will be like, ‘I’ve been married to him for longer.’”
The group — which also includes Roanoke actor Joel Gruver, who plays Pennsylvania delegate John Dickinson, the show’s antagonist — will text each other Revolutionary War jokes. They also constantly fill Price’s Facebook wall with Benjamin Franklin memes.
“There’s one where it’s almost like Storm from ‘X-Men’. He’s wearing a kite on his back and he’s floating in the air, shooting lightning bolts out,” says Price. “That’s what I try to channel [in]to the character.”
This doesn’t mean members of the group haven’t thought about stepping down.
Both Price and Lindevaldsen admit they have considered taking their final bow as the iconic American figures, but they couldn’t resist putting the wigs — or, in the case of Ben Franklin, the bald cap and wig combo — back on.
Plus, having new actors cycle into various roles, or actors take on new roles within the production, breathes fresh life into the material, Lindevaldsen adds.
Even if some of the original group does eventually decide the time has come to pass the role on, there’s at least one cast member who isn’t going anywhere.
“They’re going to have to pry it from my cold, dead hands,” says Anderson. “Eventually, they’re going to have a John that’s way too young for me, and it’s going to be awkward.”
Emma Schkloven covers arts and entertainment for The News & Advance. Reach her at (434) 385-5489, and follow her on Twitter and Instagram @byEmmaSchkloven.