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1776 by Peter Stone and Sherman Edwards – Los Angeles (Long Beach) Theater Review

 

THE MUSICAL THAT LIFTS MEN'S SOULS

 

picture - 1776

 

Theater Review

by Tony Frankel 

published July 23, 2010 

 

1776

now playing in Los Angeles (Long Beach) at the Richard and Karen Carpenter Performing Arts Center    

through July 25 

 

How remarkable to have been a fly on the wall when the creators of 1776, the 1969 musical receiving a triumphant Musical Theatre West revival, were deciding the Eleven O’clock Number (the trope given for the big second act number by a main character that energizes the audience); for, up to this point, 1776 is about John Adams’ tireless crusade to enroll the Continental Congress to vote for independence from Britain. You would think the song would be “The Spirit of ’76!” sung by John Adams – instead a South Carolina Congressman goes berserk (with African rhythms no less!) during his tirade about the North’s economic complicity in the Slave Trade, “Molasses to Rum.” Any producer in his right mind would have given up at the reading and taken the million dollar loss.

 

picture - 1776But that is the miracle of this revolutionary musical: it shouldn’t work, but it does!  Peter Stone created some of the wittiest, most sophisticated dialogue, and, as conceptualized by composer/lyricist Sherman Edwards, one of the most compelling stories ever seen in the book of a musical. Stone wisely believed that Adams and the others were not to be treated as Gods in his script; instead, they should have an affectionate familiarity to the audience, nothing reverential. Stone and Edwards were revered with a Tony award for best musical in 1969, beating out Hair, the rock musical that surely was the zeitgeist of the times. If you are feeling downtrodden about our current political climate, bolt for the Carpenter Center and see why 1969 audiences lapped up 1776: you will find that remarkably little has changed in politics; the difference being that in the Colonies they put their lives on the dotted line, got something done, and changed history in the process.

 

Talk about a revolution.

 

Some may balk at Stone’s very long script or the folksy characters, but one must be made of stone not to be permeated with a sense of patriotism when the Declaration is signed (oops, I just gave away the ending!); 1776 remains highly recommended, especially to those parched individuals who need to be slaked from America’s current dearth of inspiration. 

 

Indeed, the biggest applause of the night was for John Adams’ line, “This is a revolution, dammit! We’re going to have to offend somebody.” It is revitalizing to see that audiences are indeed disillusioned by mediocrity in politics; perhaps they cheer Mr. Adams because he is asserting what they already know to be true (but haven’t said out loud): that maybe the need to placate the offended few douses the inventiveness this country is known for.

 

(As a side-bar, Adams’ line also reinforces this reviewer’s opinion that political correctness often stifles invention in today’s theatre.)

 

picture - 1776Hosanna to director Nick DeGruccio and his Broadway-caliber cast for a gripping evening; they give you more bang for your buck than fireworks on the fourth of July. The first act, which clocks in at one hour forty-five minutes, flies by like a steady, soaring eagle. The 26 players are unanimously skilled, as is most evident in Act One, Scene Three, in which 1776 holds the record for the longest time in a musical without a single note of music.

 

“Obnoxious and disliked” John Adams (the likable and stirring Steven Glaudini) and Ben Franklin (in a non-literal yet endearing portrayal by Stephen Vinovich) have coerced Richard Lee (Davis Gaines) to propose a vote on independence from Britain. Mr. Gaines, ever the consummate showman, and known for playing the title role in Phantom of the Opera over 2000 times, commands the stage without stealing it from his fellow players.

 

Now in Scene 3, the suspense is palpable as members of the Continental Congress play a game of cerebral chess, outwitting each other at every turn. When a proposal to suspend discussion on independence is narrowly defeated, it leads to a walking-stick fight between Adams and Philadelphia’s John Dickinson (Andy Umberger, played with a cool and stately provocation). A committee to write a declaration of independence is created and must deliver the document three weeks hence. The music begins again when Thomas Jefferson (John Bisom) is selected by default in the delightful number, “But, Mr. Adams.”

 

picture - 1776It is actually difficult to resist relaying each glorious moment of this production, as they are multitudinous, but nods go to the luminous Tami Tappan Damiano as Abigail Adams, whose only interaction with the cast is via the famous letters between her and Mr. Adams; Robert J. Townsend (as Rutledge, the aforementioned South Carolinian) for a performance of “Molasses to Rum” that is so powerful, it could re-crack the Liberty Bell; the plaintive Michael Kean (“Momma, Look Sharp,”); Todd Nielson in a multi-layered take on the proudly flustered Secretary; and charming Jessica Bernard as Martha Jefferson..

 

Detrimental to this production is the placement of a show that, like a beautiful body in loose clothing, belongs in a less cavernous space; it seems an insurmountable task for Julie Ferrin to fill the auditorium with balanced sound – there are echoes, distortions, and unevenness. Musical director Matthew Smedal and his sturdy orchestra, however, succeed resoundingly.

 

You can quibble (but don’t) about colonialists’ quotes from 1800 embedded in the script, or Ben Franklin dancing with gout, or historical inaccuracies (the majority of the 56 signers of the Declaration did so on August 2). Most of what you see in the media today isn’t accurate, either – and certainly not as inspiring and entertaining as 1776. Would that MTW extended their run – we could all use an infusion of patriotic spirit that leaves a glisten in our eyes and hope in our hearts.

 

tonyfrankel @ stageandcinema.com

 

photos by Ken Jacques

 

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