Monday, June 5, 2017

Review of "1776"

There are many parallels between today’s United States Congress in Washington, D.C. and that of the Continental Congress in Philadelphia portrayed in the musical 1776.

Befuddlement and crippling stagnation are words that come to mind when referring to both institutions.  In the end, fortunately, the delegates from the 13 colonies, practiced the art of compromise so the Declaration of Independence could be forged and signed.  Their diligence and hard-work should be an example to the current occupants of the White House, House of Representatives and Senate, which are all too often subsumed by squabbling and partisan pontifications.

In 1776, receiving an uneven production at the Connecticut Repertory Theater, we are witnesses to history as acrimony and narrow-minded politics are eventually put aside to shape our nation.  Book writer Peter Stone has done a superb job crafting a show humanizing such historical figures as John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, and Thomas Jefferson all the while giving the audience a primer on American history.  It can sometimes be a bit too talky (Broadway trivia fun fact—the musical has the longest interval between songs, 30minutes, of any show in Broadway history), but the combination of the interaction between characters and the machinations of a government in its infancy are effective and entertaining.

The score by Sherman Edwards, his lone theatrical effort, is glorious with nary a miss among them.   The songs add zest to the production and are performed with professionalism and aplomb.  The songs can be playful and humorous as with "Sit Down, John" and But, Mr. Adams;" outrageous and gleeful ("The Lees of Old Virginia"), but also moving ("He Plays the Violin") and solemn ("Molasses to Rum").  Adam Harrington’s rendition of “Cool, Cool, Considerate Men,” an ode to fighting for conservative values, is one of the high points of the musical.

The cast, a mix of theater professionals and university students learning the craft, is led by Jamie LaVerdiere as John Adams.  While the actor is passionate and committed in his role, he comes across as described in the song “But, Mr. Adams,” a tad too “obnoxious and disliked.”  There needed to be a little more nuance to his portrayal, which weakens the overall strength of the character.

Other notable performers include Richard R. Henry as a well-rounded Benjamin Franklin, who delivers his witticisms with self-assured delight to friends and foes alike.  Gaelen Gilliland’s Abigail Adams does not spend much time on stage, but she makes the most of her appearance especially with her golden voice is such songs as “Till Then” and “Yours, Yours, Yours.”  Adam Harrington gives the Pennsylvanian John Dickinson a consistent, but layered feel.  While you may disagree with his viewpoints you cannot fault him for his unswerving convictions.  Will Bryant’s Thomas Jefferson comes across as being too much in the background rather then in the foreground.  While a supporting role, there should be more vigor in his time on stage.  Simon Longnight is too much the fool as Richard Henry Lee.  While his crowd-pleasing number, “The Lees of Old Virginia,” is a comic highlight of the show it’s played too much for laughs.

The Broadway veteran Terrence Mann, the new artistic director of CRT, guides the show with appropriateness and straightforwardness.  However, he sometimes relies on too much shouting by the characters to hammer home a point or having the actors bang their walking sticks on desks to put an exclamation to a highly-charged argument.  His casting of Equity actors and musical theater undergraduates from various programs around the country is problematic in a show where age and seasoning are important elements.

1776, ringing forth liberty and freedom in Storrs, CT through June 10th.

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