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1776 at New York City Center Encores!

Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin and John Adams push for independence — and are played by, from left, John Behlmann, John Larroquette and Santino Fontano in "1776." The show informs the Broadway hit "Hamilton."

Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin and John Adams push for independence — and are played by, from left, John Behlmann, John Larroquette and Santino Fontano in "1776." The show informs the Broadway hit "Hamilton."

                                         by Julia Polinsky

Delightful. Engaging. Sometimes thrilling. How many ways are there to say the Encores! production of 1776 was really, really good? Never mind. There probably aren't enough.

Such actors! Such singing! What performances! And this, in a show in which a bunch of guys sit around and talk and sing about how hard it is to get anything done, about an issue as important as independence!

Santino Fontana as John Adams

They backstab and bitch, confront and yell. John Adams (the splendid Santino Fontana), the main character, is frequently referred to as "obnoxious and disliked." No love story, except in Adams’ mind, via his correspondence with his wife (Christianne Noll). Only 13 musical numbers. How the hell do you make those elements into a feel-good show, one that seems fresh and topical in 2016, perhaps more so than in its original run in 1969?

Christiane Noll and Santino Fontana. (Joan Marcus)
Christiane Noll and Santino Fontana. (Joan Marcus)

Director Garry Hynes has done a bang-up job of making the most of the spare staging typical of Encores! productions. Encores! frequently goes over the top, presenting highly crafted staged readings, that are barely less than full productions. This production of 1776 is a model of restraint, by Encores! standards.

Also atypical of Encores! productions: this show is talk, talk, talk, and more talk, with a few songs here and there. Encores! usually goes for great scores with book that may not be all it could be. Considering that there are no surprises in the end – after all, the show is about whether the 13 American colonies should declare independence from England – the book for 1776 is remarkably engrossing. Peter Stone, who wrote it, took on the unlikely task of making early American history entertaining, after Sherman Edwards, the composer and lyricist, came up with the original concept.

That concept has seen some changes, here. Modern dress on the actors makes it easier for an audience in 2016 to engage in the work. Costume is character, after all; although great period costume can be beautiful in itself, it’s not necessary here. In this 1776, the audience doesn’t have to ignore, or adjust to, frock coats, breeches, and powdered wigs, in order to really hear what’s being said. We’re accustomed to seeing our badly behaved representatives in business suits.

About that bad behavior: plus ca change, plus c’est la meme chose. 1776 presents us with the memorable lines: “I have come to the conclusion that one useless man is called a disgrace — two are called a law firm — and that three or more become a Congress.”  Yup.

Bryce Pinkham (center) leads members of the cast of “1776” in “Cool, Cool Considerate Men.” (Joan Marcus)

1776  gives us conservatives congratulating themselves on being conservative (“Cool, Cool, Considerate Men”); a hot tempered duel of wills between the leading representatives from opposite sides of a contentious issue; the tension of colony after colony making difficult choices; heated opinions about very complex issues, some of which have had ramifications for centuries after ratification of the Declaration of Independence.

Face it. These men were creating a revolution, committing treason. They were rejecting the status quo, snapping at the greatest power in the Western hemisphere, and supporting armed resistance. Nowadays, we call that “terrorism.” But wait: there’s more! The show sings of slavery and hypocrisy, (“Molasses to Rum” in a smashing performance by Alexander Gemignani), and the pathos of young men dying for freedom (the poignant “Momma, Look Sharp,” beautifully sung by John-Michael Lyles).

Bryce Pinkham, as Pennsylvania representative John Dickinson, gave an excellent performance, even when tech problems took out his mic. John Larroquette charmed as Ben Franklin. Andre de Shields was marvelous as the two-fisted rum drinking representative of Rhode Island. Jubilant Sykes was delightful as the exuberant Richard Henry Lee, of Virginia. Nikki Renee Daniels, as Thomas Jefferson’s wife, Martha, sang beautifully and gave the double-entendres of “He Plays The Violin” a lovely sweetness.

Oh, by the way: those last few actors’ names should have given you a clue that 1776 had color-blind casting. Yes, Hamilton has had a huge effect on Broadway. Get over it. Because when this show moves – as seems inevitable – it would be inconceivable to have an all-white cast. (Although, the casting of an African-American woman as Thomas Jefferson’s wife was perhaps a wee bit over the top, too much of a reference to Sally Heming).

All in all, what could have been a boring history lesson was vibrant and alive. 1776 at Encores! dished up terrific performances in a timely, humorous, poignant musical.

New York City Center Encores! presents 1776

Mar 30 - Apr 3, 2016

New York City Center

131 W 55th St (btwn 6th & 7th)
New York, NY 10019
CityTix® 212.581.1212

Coming up:
Do I Hear a Waltz?
 May 11 — 15 , 2016

Performance Schedule: Wed - Thu 7:30pm, Fri 8, Sat 2 & 8, Sun 2 & 7