JOAN MARCUS/©2016 JOAN MARCUS
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
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?
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
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
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
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!
Mar 30 - Apr 3, 2016
New York City Center
131 W 55th St (btwn 6th & 7th)
New York, NY 10019
Do I Hear a Waltz? May 11 — 15 , 2016
Performance Schedule: Wed - Thu 7:30pm, Fri 8, Sat 2 & 8, Sun
2 & 7