Friday, April 1, 2016

Theater Review—Classic Musical "1776" Returns, via Encores

Book by Peter Stone; music & lyrics by Sherman Edwards; directed by Garry Hynes
Performances through April 3, 2016
New York City Center, 131 West 55th Street, New York, NY

The cast of 1776 at Encores! (photo: Joan Marcus)

Forget Hamilton. 1776 remains the champion of Revolutionary-era American musicals, and the current Encores! semi-staging furthers its case for uniqueness, brilliance and sheer entertainment, all intact since its 1969 Tony-winning production.

Smartly directed by Garry Hynes with appropriate nods to the original director, Peter Hunt (who also helmed the classic film version with original cast members William Daniels, Howard da Silva and Ken Howard), 1776 is buoyed by what is probably the greatest musical book in Broadway history: Peter Stone provides savvy, droll and endlessly quotable dialogue for the Founding Fathers (some of which came directly from them), who come vividly to life as merely flawed men who are, as Ben Franklin sagely notes, "trying to get a nation started against greater odds than a more generous God would have allowed."

But although Stone's book is the show's backbone—indeed, it would also make a wonderful straight play—Sherman Edwards' delightful songs further humanize the men (and women) who played the main roles in founding our country, and hearing his music played by the excellent Encores! Orchestra under conductor Ben Whiteley is a special treat.

Hynes' exceptional cast is led by Santino Fontana (an amusingly pig-headed John Adams), John Laroquette (an endlessly witty Ben Franklin) and John Behlmann (a sober, dashing Thomas Jefferson); if none is up to the level of the original performers, Fontana, for one, sings more powerfully than William Daniels. Nikki Renee Daniels charmingly dispatches Martha Jefferson's pretty paean to her husband, "He Plays the Violin," while Christianne Noll's articulate, funny and golden-voiced Abigail Adams makes a perfect foil to Fontana's John, especially in their glorious duets, "Till Then" and "Yours, Yours, Yours."

Edwards' score contains great songs allowing supporting characters to shine: Bryce Pinkham, as John Dickinson, gives a marvelous reading of that cutting hymn to Conservative values, "Cool Cool Considerate Men"; Alexander Gemignani brings down the house as Edward Rutledge, the Southern slave owner, when he sings "Molasses to Rum," that powerful rebuke to Northern hypocrisy when it comes to the "peculiar institution"; and John-Michael Lyles, as the courier who delivers General Washington's distressing dispatches to Congress, is quite moving in the emotional soldier's ballad "Momma, Look Sharp."

It might have been chosen by Encores! to ride the coattails of Hamilton, but 1776 is, in all respects, the superior show.

New York City Center, 131 West 55th Street, New York, NY

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