By Kay Kipling
While it's a pity that composer Sherman Edwards apparently never did another musical besides 1776, thank heavens he did this one. The wit, humor, pathos and drama of this show about our Founding Fathers and the Declaration of Independence, now onstage at the Asolo Rep, make it one of the most exciting Broadway shows of its time--and that time is now as much as it is the Revolutionary era or the year the show debuted, in 1969.
In fact, 1776 feels revolutionary not just in its storyline but in the manner of telling. Edwards and book writer Peter Stone weren't out to create a typical musical comedy with this piece, although it's often very funny and certainly boasts some wonderful songs. These songs spring from the dialogue (some of which came straight from the mouths or pens of John Adams, Thomas Jefferson or Benjamin Franklin themselves), which is pithy and occasionally plaintive, as Adams (a strong Bernie Yvon) tries desperately to get the do-nothing Continental Congress, sitting in a stiflingly hot Philadelphia meeting room, to finally resolve on the issue of independence.
In this version of history (which is agreed upon by many), Adams is the sparkplug of the independence movement, albeit a self-confessed "obnoxious and disliked" one. Franklin (Andrew Boyer, crankier and less folksy than this leader is sometimes portrayed, but viably so) is less impatient, but still has problems within his own Pennsylvania delegation, namely with the Tory John Dickinson (Jeff Parker), who is unwilling to sever ties with the mother country of England. The arguments fly back and forth, most enjoyably so, between pros and cons, as we are introduced to the full contingent of delegates, each of whom gets at least a moment or two in the spotlight. And it's so appealing to see them all as very flawed human beings who nevertheless rise to the occasion.
Not ignoring the women of our history, 1776 also gives us Abigail Adams (Abby Mueller), writing longingly to her husband from their Massachusetts farm, and Martha Jefferson (Andrea Prestinario), whose arrival on the scene to help motivate her husband Tom (Brandon Dahlquist) is a particularly bright spot. Prestinario, lovely and lively in a beautiful pink gown designed by Mara Blumenfeld, soars vocally and in spirit with He Plays the Violin.
But everyone in the cast deserves praise here, whether it's Yvon as the exasperated Adams, Jay Lusteck as a comedically bent Richard Henry Lee, or Jarrod Zimmerman as Edward Rutledge, whose Act II solo, Molasses to Rum, disclosing the hypocrisy behind the question of slave ownership, is the dramatic crux of the show. 1776 touches on so many aspects still under hot discussion in America today, especially during the recent presidential election--what it means to be a property owner (or not), what it means to be a citizen, what it means to compromise. Cool Cool Considerate Men (led by Dickinson "to the right, always to the right") feels especially sharp just now.
Director Frank Galati (read his piece in our November issue by clicking here), with the choreography of Peter Amster and music direction of Michael Rice, has staged the production beautifully on an authentic-feeling set by Russell Metheny, with highly effective lighting by Paul Miller--especially notable on the touching Momma, Look Sharp number sung by the courier (Zachary Kenney), who must always deliver Gen. Washington's bad news. No matter how many times I've seen 1776, I always get caught up in the suspense of it all, just as if I didn't know the outcome. And the final moments still give me goosebumps.
1776 continues on the Asolo Rep stage through Dec. 22; call 351-8000 or go to asolorep.org for tickets.