nytheatre.com review by David Ian Lee
April 25, 2009
With the Democrats' near-filibuster proof majority in Congress unable to push through legislation such as the Employee Free Choice Act, the sudden and dramatic flip-flop of political parties by Senator Arlen Spector, and strong personalities on both sides lobbing rhetorical strikes across the aisle, into the street, and to the mattresses, 1776 seems as relevant now as when it first premiered on Broadway in 1969. Sherman Edwards and Peter Stone's musical will likely forever stand the test of time, as it serves not only as history lesson but a fine sounding board to resonate current political tastes, debates, and dissent. How fortuitous, then, that Paper Mill Playhouse has staged a near-perfect production, directed by Gordon Greenberg with cleverness, passion, and charm.
1776 tells the (mostly historically accurate) story of how John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, and Thomas Jefferson came to convince the deadlocked Second Continental Congress to vote for independency from George III's England and contrive an agreed-upon draft of the Declaration of Independence. The proceedings sound heady but the witty book by Stone is abetted by Edwards's rousing score, featuring songs jaunty, haunting, and leap-to-your-feet inspirational.
Don Stephenson is outstanding as John Adams, perfectly balancing bluster with charming weariness. His impassioned plea that Congress "Vote now!" during the show's opening number "Sit Down, John" sets the tone of the evening: Ardent intelligence rooted by recognizable human want. In counterpoint to the show's political machinations, Adams's long-distance exchanges with his wife are touching and delicate, thanks in part to a nuanced and beautiful performance from Kerry O'Malley as Abigail Adams.
With an outstanding cast playing more than 20 speaking roles, it would be fine to laud praise on each member of the company. Standouts include Conrad John Schuck as an affable, dozy Benjamin Franklin and Nick Wyman as the stoic, dignified John Hancock. Griffin Matthews's rendition of the haunting battlefield hymn "Momma, Look Sharp" served as the ideal final moments for an emotionally exhaustive first act (clocking in at almost two hours). Robert Cuccioli, as Pennsylvania delegate John Dickinson, serves as a fine antagonist to Adams and the inevitability of history; all sneering pomposity, his second act song "Cool, Cool Considerate Men" is as sweet and languid as molasses. As Edward Rutledge of South Carolina, James Barbour all but vanishes amidst the lush costumes and engraving-like set pieces until his explosive turn in "Molasses to Rum": His vile celebration of the Triangle Trade makes for powerful theatre, and received the loudest and longest applause of any song of the evening.
With a gorgeous set by Kevin Rupnik, evocative lighting by Jeff Croiter, and outstanding period costumes by Alejo Vietti, Paper Mill's 1776 evokes the classic images of Robert Edge Pine and Edward Savage; the final moments, as Congress signs that most famous of American documents and the Liberty Bell rings out, brought the audience immediately to their feet with a well-deserved standing ovation. This is a stellar production.