Wednesday, March 30, 2016

1776: Encores! Production Takes Us to the Room Where It Happened When The Nation Was Born

If you haven’t been able to figure out how to crowdfund a ticket to Hamilton, you might want to get yourself over to City Center for the highly enjoyable Encores! production of 1776.  

In this case, the room where it happened is the Assembly Room in Independence Hall in Philadelphia, where the delegates from the 13 colonies met as the Second Continental Congress during that hot, hot summer of 1776 to debate whether or not to approve the document that would become known as the Declaration of Independence.  

The 1969 show, which walked off with a slew of Tony Awards (six plus a couple of additional nominations) and ran for over 1,200 performances, had the good fortune of having as its book writer Peter Stone, a gifted wordsmith who was responsible for such gems as the screenplay for Charade and the books for the Tony winning musicals The Will Rogers Follies and Titanic. In the case of 1776, there is no question but that this is one musical where the book outshines the songs. There is even one long stretch (30 minutes or so) in which not one note of music is delivered.  

This is not to disparage Sherman Edwards’ score, which is tuneful enough and does the show no harm; indeed, the songs provide much-needed breaks from the tension of the arguing, debating, and negotiating that are taking place in that stifling room (the heat and the flies are the only topics on which there is agreement). But it really is Mr. Stone’s detailed and tension-filled scenes among the delegates that make the show – even though, yes, we do know how things will turn out.  

Santino Fontana is terrific as John Adams, a man who, for his sheer orneriness and stubborn determination, may well remind you of the way that Alexander Hamilton is being portrayed over at the Richard Rodgers Theatre. He says of himself that he is “obnoxious and disliked” – a description that no one disputes – and his opening words about his fellow delegates ring as true today as they did way back when.  

One useless man, he says, is a disgrace; two are a law firm; and three or more are a Congress. (To underscore the point, and to make the contemporary connection, the gentlemen of the cast are all dressed in modern business suits.)

As we listen in on the arguments in the Assembly Room, they are generally as trivial and pointless as anything going on in Washington nowadays.  But Adams and his allies (among them Ben Franklin, played with a mix of avuncular wisdom and devilish charm by John Larroquette) have one goal in mind: to foment a revolution and establish an independent and sovereign nation out of the loose affiliation of colonies.  In order to do this, he must find a pathway to unanimity, a near impossible task given the various competing interests among the delegates.   

One of the great things about shows like this (and like Hamilton) is that they bring history to life. No one will claim that 1776 fails to play fast and loose with the details. It's a musical, after all, not a history lesson. But the big picture is brilliantly captured as we are introduced to those who were present at the beginning of our nation. 

Bryce Pinkham (A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder) portrays John Dickinson of Pennsylvania, a man who is bound and determined to maintain the status quo with England, as he explains in his big number with the other conservative delegates, “Cool, Cool Considerate Men.” 

New York audience will appreciate the jabs at their state's politicians, and the New York delegate's persistent if "courteous" abstentions on every vote.  

And you cannot have a Declaration of Independence without its author, Thomas Jefferson, played by John Behlmann with a sense of quiet conviction, coupled with a genteel Virginia pragmatism that lead him to agree to changes in the Declaration in order to garner needed votes, especially from the Southern delegates who are particularly sensitive to anti-slavery language.  

Both Mr. Stone and Mr. Edwards use the show to make a strong statement about slavery, that “peculiar institution” that represents an unshakable truth about our first century as a nation. One of the more powerful songs is performed by the character of Edward Rutledge of South Carolina (Alexander Gemignani). Titled “Molasses to Rum,” it is an indictment of the hypocrisy of the Northerners who say they are opposed to slavery but who are quite content to share in the profits that slave trading brings.  

Of course, we are well aware that many of the founding fathers were slave owners (Jefferson and Washington, among them), and the production makes a sly statement about this by having an African American actress, Nikki Renée Daniels (The Book of Mormon, The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess) play Jefferson's wife.  (We can't help but think of Sally Hemings).  

The Assembly Room is decidedly a man's world, however. The only other woman in the show is Christiane Noll as Abigail Adams, with rather too little to do beyond singing about how much she misses her husband. Also underutilized is André De Shields (The Wiz, Ain’t Misbehavin’) as a rum swilling Rhode Island delegate.   

Still and all, this is a fine production of a show that has seen only one Broadway revival (in 1997) since its initial run.  If you want to catch it, you’ll have to move quickly.  Encores! shows run for just a handful of performances. This one ends on Sunday.

Feel free to share this blog with your friends, and to offer up your own theater stories by posting a comment. I also invite you to check out the new website Show-Score.Com, where you will find capsule reviews of current plays from Yours Truly and many other New York critics. 


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