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A CurtainUp Review
By Linda Bloom
Members of the Continental Congress of 1776 may have bickered up to the signing of the Declaration of Independence, but the 27-member cast performing the Roundabout Theatre Company's revival of this Tony Award-winning musical moves in perfect accord.
From the rousing opening song, "Sit Down, John," in the chamber of the Congress to the final bows, taken only as a group, the well-tuned ensemble delivers an entertaining and, at times, compelling production in which even the smallest of parts is sharply drawn. As directed by Scott Ellis (recently nominated for 1997 Drama Desk, Outer Critics Circle and Tony Awards for Steel Pier), the musical remains true to the original book by Peter Stone, yet seems timeless in its observations of the machinations of politics.
The idea for 1776 originated with the late Sherman Edwards, a songwriter who spent years doing research and wrote the music and lyrics. After initially turning Edwards down, Stone (who won the 1997 Best Musical Tony Award for Titanic) wrote the libretto. Before the March 16, 1969 opening on Broadway, it was unclear whether a historical musical touting patriotism would be accepted during a time when the nation was bitterly divided over the Vietnam War.
But 1776, of course, is about revolution as well and most critics hailed it for its originality, style and wit. The cast, led by William Daniels as John Adams and Howard DaSilva as Ben Franklin, was uniformly praised and the show ran for more than three years.
Set in May, June and July of 1776, the musical allows the audience to witness the haggling, angry discourse and happenstance which leads to the creation of both a new nation and the document which proclaims its birth. In the Roundabout production, Brent Spiner -- an actor who gained fame as Data in television's "Star Trek: The Next Generation" but has experience on New York stages -- portrays John Adams, the representative from Massachusetts who desperately tries to win the argument for independence but is hampered by the fact that he is generally considered "obnoxious and disliked."
Benjamin Franklin, played by veteran actor Pat Hingle, convinces Adams that Richard Henry Lee of Virginia (Merwin Foard) should introduce the resolution on independence instead. Thomas Jefferson (Paul Michael Valley), a newlywed longing to return to his wife, is unwillingly drafted into writing a "declarationquot; of their intent.
But the pro-independence representatives have to battle with both John Dickinson (Michael Cumpsty), a "man of property" from Pennsylvania, and the southern contingent, led by Edward Rutledge (Gregg Edelman) of South Carolina. The showdown comes over the issue of slavery as Rutledge implicates all who profit -- including Jefferson -- in the buying and selling of other human beings.
Spiner portrays Adams not so much as an obnoxious agitator -- as he is accused of being by Dickinson -- but a committed man who becomes increasingly frustrated when others won't acknowledge the need to break from the tyranny of King George. His frustrations and doubts are expressed in interchanges with his wife Abigail (Linda Emond) and, most forcefully, in the song, "Is Anybody There?"
Hingle has Franklin's dry but lively sense of humor down pat and Valley's understated Jefferson emerges from reluctant writer to man of principle, especially after being inspired by a visit from his wife Martha (Lauren Ward). Foard's cheerful, lustful and slightly dense Richard Henry Lee is just right for the ebullient song, "The Lees of Old Virginia."
Both of Adams' chief foes in the Congress -- Edelman as Rutledge and Cumpsty as Dickinson -- are outstanding. Edelman takes full advantage of his opportunity to shine in the song, "Molasses to Run," as he delivers a scathing indictment of the "hypocrites" from the North who share responsibility for the slave trade.
Cumpsty's turn, with the conservative representatives, in "Cool, Cool Considerate Men" sets up the powerful contrast between "men of property" and the young men who are dying in battle which ends the first act. Dashiell Eaves, playing the young courier who brings dispatches to the Congress from General Washington, offers a quietly poignant rendition of "Momma Look Sharp."
But the glue which binds the production is the consistency of its ensemble, the characters who read, write, debate, sleep, laugh, accuse or looked bored from their seats in the Philadelphia chamber of the Continental Congress. John Hancock (Richard Poe), the Congress President, is exasperated by the flies and the heat and the Congress itself. James Wilson (Michael Winther), the man who doesn't want to be remembered by history, is happily overshadowed by Dickinson, his fellow Pennsylvania representative. Dr. Lyman Hall (Robert Westenberg), the new representative from Georgia, has to decide whether to vote his convictions and break with the South.
The acting ensemble is aided by stellar work from the production's design team, composed of Tony Walton, sets; William Ivey Long, costumes; Brian Nason, lighting, and Brian Ronan, sound. Walton's revolving set is especially noteworthy since, besides being handsome, it maximizes use of the stage.
Roundabout is to be especially commended for its policy of offering half-price tickets for anyone 17 years or younger at all performances of 1776. After the show, this reviewer spoke with a young boy and his father who praised both the policy and the production. "It's great because he loves the theater," the father said. "They made it possible for him to go." Amen!