A powerful highlight is “Cool, Cool, Considerate Men” with its tart lyrics:
We have land, cash in hand
Self command, future planned
Fortune thrives, society survives
In neatly ordered lives
With well-endowered wives
Come ye cool, cool considerate set
We’ll dance together to the same minuet
To the right, ever to the right
Never to the left, forever to the right
It becomes a chilling spectacle as the group of eight Conservative officials made of up Caucasian and African-American actors wearing business suits dance and plot during this menacing sequence. One can interpret it, as the ruling class’ hold on society is eternal.
Replacing powdered wigs and 18th Century outfits with present day clothing and with modern devices such as microphones in Congress enhances rather then dilutes the show’s impact. The interspersed casting of performers of color doesn’t seem jarring but rather matter of fact.
It is June 1776, in Philadelphia, and members of the Continental Congress representing the thirteen American colonies are contentiously debating the prospect of declaring independence from Great Britain. The vociferous Massachusetts representative John Adams is the most vocal proponent in favor and he battles various factions in an attempt to achieve this.
Peter Stone’s book has been much acclaimed and cited as one the best ever for a musical. Stripped of period trappings its effectiveness is even more evident. Mr. Stone took a historical situation where the outcome is known and creates suspense. His superior construction utilizes ingenious narrative devices such as the pages of the calendar in Congress being turned to show the passage time. His tremendous research is present in the depictions of the real people involved. The book is also known for its relatively long stretches without songs. It helps considerably that the dialogue is often witty, realistic and very funny.
Sherman Edwards’ amazing score blends facts and character with superb songwriting. Mr. Edwards’ clever lyrics and rousing melodies combined with the book have made 1776 one of the most beloved shows by musical theater devotees and the public.
It premiered on Broadway in 1969, winning The Tony Award for Best Musical and ran for nearly three years. The 1972 film version featured much of the original stage production’s cast and was directed by the original stage director Peter Hunt. Annual television showings on July 4th have given it perennial status. A traditional revival opened on Broadway in 1997 and ran for 10 months. There are often regional productions of it.
Besides artfully integrating modernity into the piece with her fine concert adaptation of the original book, director Garry Hynes has staged this presentation with vibrancy and precision. The company of over two-dozen is perfectly placed throughout the stage. Chris Bailey’s delightful choreography provides a number of exciting interludes. Ms. Hynes has also assembled a terrific cast.
The prime instigator of the events, John Adams, was rotund and abrasive. Here he is played by the handsome Santino Fontana who was Prince Charming in the recent Broadway production of Cinderella. Though Mr. Fontana bears no physical resemblance to Adams he conveys his rage, frustration and humanity with his dynamic performance. Fontana’s soaring voice captures the emotion and humor of the score, particularly on “Is Anybody There?”
With his own flowing white hair instead of a wig, eyeglasses and carrying a walking stick because of gout, John Larroquette is a wonderful Benjamin Franklin. Mr. Larroquette is droll, often understated and possessed of priceless comic timing. This was memorably exhibited in his multiple Emmy Award-winning role on the television situation comedy Night Court and his stage appearances that include his Tony-Award winning part in the Broadway revival of How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying.
Lean and brooding, John Behlmann is an excellent Thomas Jefferson. Bryce Pinkham forcefully leads the conservative faction as John Dickinson. Jubilant Sykes raucously steals his scenes dancing and singing the showstopper, “The Lees of Old Virginia,” as Richard Henry Lee. Distinguished stage veteran André De Shields is gleefully caustic and gracefully spindly as the tippling Stephen Hopkins.
Alexander Gemignani as Edward Rutledge commandingly sings the fiery ode to the slave trade, “Molasses to Rum.” As the young Courier, John-Michael Lyles has poignant focus singing the antiwar song, “Mama Look Sharp.”
Shuffling the tally board of the states’ votes, flipping the calendar pages and wearily ambling through the congressional chamber are among enduring performer MacIntyre Dixon’s hilarious antics as Custodian Thomas McNair.
Michael McCormick is a comically authoritative John Hancock. Corpulent Ric Stoneback makes the most of the role of the blustery Samuel Chase. Laird Mackintosh ably depicts the timidity of the pivotal figure Judge James Wilson with low-key flair.
Christiane Noll is an enchantingly feisty Abigail Adams and scores with her romantic duets with John Adams and her solo “Compliments.” The playful lustiness of “He Plays the Violin” is marvelously brought to life by Nikki Renée Daniels’ spirited turn as Martha Jefferson.
The rest of the talented company includes Terence Archie, Larry Bull, John Hickok, John Hillner, Kevin Ligon, Michael Medeiros, Wayne Pretlow, Tom Alan Robbins, Robert Sella, Vishal Vaidya, Nicholas Ward, and Jacob Keith Watson.
The congressional chamber is richly rendered by Anna Louizos’ accomplished scenic design that also includes simple wooden window frames with clouds outside above the playing area. Terese Wadden’s costume design very skillfully uses business suits of various colors and styles to individualize the many characters. A fun touch is Abigail Adams’ L.L. Bean style rustic ensemble of jeans, flannel shirt and a hunting vest.
Ken Billington’s lighting design and Leon Rothenberg’s sound design crisply accentuate the look and sound of the show.
The phenomenal success of the Broadway historical musical Hamilton with its racially diverse cast reportedly inspired this cultural rethinking of this revival of 1776. Emulating that device brings a striking and very entertaining dimension to the appreciation of this theatrical work of perfection.
1776 (March 30 – April 3, 2016)
New York City Center Encores!
New York City Center, 131 West 55th Street, in Manhattan
For tickets, call 212-581-1212 or visit http://www.nycitycenter.org
Running time: two hours and fifty minutes with one intermission