October 2, 2016
When ‘1776’ opened at the Richard Rodgers Theatre in 1969, its producers were well aware that the show was about to establish a number of significant ‘firsts.’ Especially interesting is the odd fact that during its three-year run (when the play moved to the St. James, and ultimately the Majestic Theatre) ‘1776’ became the first Broadway musical ever, wherein theatergoers witnessed a full half-hour of continual performance in the middle of Act I, during which no songs were offered! Indeed, until ‘1776’ came along, it was established tradition that instrumentalists were prohibited from leaving their orchestra pit in the course of an act … but this show became the exception. Thirty minutes was simply too long to sit and do nothing, it seems.
One can only suppose that the musicians’ union had something to say about the undoubtedly welcome verdict.
Even today, some forty-five years and one fairly successful revival later, theater impresarios are divided in their opinions as to whether this story about the signing of the Declaration of Independence should be a musical at all!
Those who favor the purely dramatic approach may have a point. For this reviewer, the most riveting segments of the lavish production are those defined by dialogue, rather than lyricism.
This is not to say that ‘1776’ deserves no place in the annals of musical theater … it is every bit as good as most efforts in the melodic genre … in fact, it should be noted that in its current format the show was nominated for five Tony Awards, winning three, and one of those three was for ‘Best Musical.’ Go figure.
Jamie LaVerdiere is superb in the starring role of John Adams, and Jennifer Hope Wills acquits herself admirably as the legendary Abigail who ultimately became America’s stunning First Lady. Together, she and LaVerdiere form an exquisite team. Wills’ extensive Broadway resumé is evident in this characterization; the part seems tailor-made for the widely-traveled star. Not to be overshadowed, however, is David Studwell playing the irrepressible Benjamin Franklin. He has some of the best lines in ‘1776,’ and deservedly so, if the history books (and hundred-dollar bills) are to be recognized as appropriate salutes to his persona.
Regular attendees at the Engeman will recognize Michael Glavan and Tom Lucca who turn in a believable Thomas Jefferson and John Hancock respectively. And Broadway standout Benjamin Howes delivers a splendid interpretation of the lesser-known John Dickinson, while James D. Schultz also shines in the somewhat more obscure role of Dr. Lyman Hall.
The actors playing the other dozen-or-so Declaration signatories also do a bang-up job, befitting their inclusion in the excellent company in which they find themselves.
As always, The Engeman has supplied its sterling cast with all the bells and whistles we’ve come to expect from the Northport company. This naturally begins with veteran Director Igor Goldin. He never, ever, disappoints!
Any critic would be remiss were they to overlook Kurt Alger’s wonderful costumes (including the powdered wigs, naturally) of the Revolutionary War era. Throw in Stephen Dobay’s wonderful set, and one can easily conclude that no cast anywhere was ever given such remarkable tools with which to execute their craft.
Chalk up another hit for The Engeman!