September 27, 2016
I once admired “1776” because it dared to be dull. Faint praise from a boomer who resented the Founding Fathers musical because A) it won the Tony over “Hair” and B) it was Richard Nixon’s favorite.
Nearly a half-century later, I’ve gotten over my snit with the “1776” creators — music and lyrics by Sherman Edwards, book by Peter Stone. I can’t remember how the line went down in 1969, when the show opened on Broadway. Nor could I possibly know how it might’ve played during the impending independence of these United States. But it sure was a hoot when, at the top of the show on opening night at the Engeman Theater, John Adams declares, “One useless man is a disgrace, two are called a law firm and three or more become a Congress.”
Perhaps it’s because it’s a presidential election year. But for once I didn’t notice the parched stretches of speechifying necessary to convey that this Continental Congress was useless until a tragic compromise was reached. That New York abstains throughout due to legislative impotence gets knowing laughs.
So let’s hear it for Jamie LaVerdiere as “obnoxious and disliked” John Adams. If he wasn’t such a persistent pain in sweltering Philadelphia, perhaps we’d be talking about Brexiting today instead of electing our 45th president. LaVerdiere projects a political passion we’d love to see from our current candidates. Speaking of passion, it’s a “1776” conceit that the Declaration of Independence might’ve gone unwritten but for Martha Jefferson’s conjugal visit. The reunion between Michael Glavan as robust Tom and Adriana Milbrath as ripe Martha is so get-a-room suggestive, you’ll want to book one for them.
Not to be outdone, John pines for Abigail in the most passionate song ever written about saltpeter — to suppress the sexual urges of George Washington’s volunteers — while David Studwell’s Ben Franklin and Benjamin Howes’ John Dickinson bookend Pennsylvania’s tyranny-vs.-Tory debate.
Inspiring moments spring from battlefield courier (Matthew Rafanelli) in his moving “Momma Look Sharp,” reminding us there’s a war going on, and “Molasses to Rum,” a perverse defense of slavery by South Carolinian Edward Rutledge (Peter Saide).
Director Igor Goldin propels the 2 1⁄2-hour narrative forward on the 18th-century set by Stephen Dobay, accessorized by Kurt Alger’s costumes/wigs and accompanied dutifully by Eric Alsford’s orchestra.
We get that the signers risked hanging separately if they didn’t hang together.