Tuesday, May 12, 2009

A Very Good Year

1776 Music and lyrics by Sherman Edwards
Book by Peter Stone
Directed by Gordon Greenburg
Starring Don Stephenson, Robert Cuccioli, Conrad John Schuck, Kerry O'Malley, Lauren Kennedy, Kevin Earley, Nick Wyman, James Barbour

Performances April 15—May 17, 2009
Paper Mill Playhouse
22 Brookside Drive, Millburn, NJ

Schuck as Franklin in 1776 (photo: Gerry Goodstein)
1776 is one of the unalloyed delights of American musical theater. Winner of the Tony Award for Best Musical in 1969, this musicalized comedy-drama about the Founding Fathers' ratification of the Declaration of Independence at a low point in the colonies' fight for freedom from England remains one of the most entertaining history lessons ever, thanks to Sherman Edwards' delightful score and clever lyrics and Peter Stone's endlessly droll (if sometimes historically inaccurate) book. John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, John Hancock and all the rest come alive through song, dance, witty repartee and a tautly dramatic recreation of our country's birth.

Revivals of 1776 are infrequent, maybe because our memories are forever wedded to the glorious original staging, which was followed by the equally delectable movie version in 1972: both starred the inimitable William Daniels as Adams, Howard da Silva as Franklin and Ken Howard as Jefferson. The impressive 1997 Roundabout Theater revival (directed by Scott Ellis) was notable for Brent Spiner's Adams (which steered clear of slavishly imitating Daniels' brilliance) and Michael Cumpsty's John Dickinson (whose big number extolling the values of conservatism, "Cool Cool Considerate Men," was cut from the film at the behest of an outraged Richard Nixon). In that cast, Pat Hingle’s playing Ben Franklin more as a bumbling old man than a sly wit was a mere quibble.

At the Paper Mill Playhouse, Gordon Greenburg's buoyant staging is also quite satisfying (with one large exception). Kevin Rupnik's inventive set design smoothly transitions among the various Philadelphia and Boston locations, and Alejo Vietti's spot-on period costumes and Jeff Croiter's subtle lighting effects show historic events through a “you are there” prism, which is what Edwards and Stone obviously were after by drawing these men as ordinary people, not demigods (or demagogues).

Still, 1776 rises or falls on the shoulders of its exceptionally large cast, which must be equally convincing to the eye and ear. Conrad John Schuck’s Franklin combines animated wit and sober analysis to ebullient effect, nearly matching da Silva's peerless original. Ditto Robert Cuccioli’s Dickinson, a finely-detailed portrait whose rendition of "Cool Cool Considerate Men" is a musical (and dramatic) highlight along with the powerful "Molasses to Rum," sung by James Barbour's Edward Rutledge as a refined Southern gentleman shaming his Northern brethren for their complicity in the slave trade. Kevin Earley is a noble, humane Jefferson, Lauren Kennedy a lovely-voiced Martha Jefferson, and Kerry O’Malley a charming Abigail Adams, whose recurring duets with husband John over ephemera like salt peter and pins are the folksiest moments in the entire show.

If only Don Stephenson's John Adams didn't bluster so unconvincingly while speaking and singing with an affectedness halfway between a Bah-ston accent and a William Daniels impression. When he sings with O’Malley, their voices blend magically, but elsewhere, he swallows his dialogue and lyrics so that newcomers to the show might miss some of the creators’ commanding words.

Still, 1776 remains unsinkable—as Paper Mill’s production proudly demonstrates.

originally posted on timessquare.com

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