If you’ve seen a production of 1776 The Musical, you know it’s a solid charmer that can cover more history in a couple of hours than any book about The Revolution. Broadway veteran Peter Stone didn’t have much to do to pull together Sherman Edwards’ expansive material (culled from a lifetime of research as a history teacher) for a musical like no other. Edwards’ delightful songs make every scene distinct. Now The Company Theatre sets fresh eyes on 1776 for a surprising and pleasing new approach to some of the staging. (1776 plays with history through August 16th).
Directors Zoe Bradford and Jordie Saucerman never stray from the material, mind you. They just tweak it enough to make you sit up and take notice. Take Andrew Giordano’s blistering rebuke of New England as South Carolina representative Edward Rutledge in the showstopper, “Molasses to Rum to Slaves.” Projections behind Giordano show the Tall Ships which “sailed out of Boston” and returned with human cargo. (When Boston celebrates “The Tall Ships” every few years now, slavery is never mentioned.) We see black and white illustrations, perhaps from a captain’s ledger, of bodies crammed into a ship’s belly. You could think it might be distracting but it isn’t. Giordano wields the lyrics like weapons. What the projections do when he’s singing about black lives that don’t matter—and we see them in front of us on the screen—is to pull us up with a jolt to 2015.
The bulk of the staging (by Sally Ashton Forrest et al) is by the book but what makes it resonate anew is Michael V. Joseph’s ingenious musical “settings.” For instance, the orchestra is reduced to an intimate chamber ensemble under the Adams’ loving, confidential letters to each other. Now they stand out in relief as you become aware of their immensely personal content. To borrow from Abigail, “what was there is still there” in the text…just exquisitely enhanced. Likewise, when the makings of gunpowder arrive in Philadelphia from Abigail and the ladies’ various auxiliaries, the brass lets us know the importance of the women’s contribution!
(Who knew there was a feminist angle just lurking in the score!)
Bob DeVivo is a dynamic John Adams, all pent up energy which can hardly contain itself, except when it’s countered by Stephanie Mann as Abigail and Erin McMillen as Martha Jefferson. DeVivo gets wonderful laughs when Ben Franklin (a wild and wooly Doug Jabara) is amazed to learn Adams can dance. (I loved that freewheeling waltz, by the by!)
Speaking of Jefferson, Trey Lundquist as a very young, reticent Jefferson and McMillen as his sweet Martha make their romance quite touching (although history has revealed Jefferson’s other relationship, with Sally Hemmings but that’s another play). In the comic relief department, John F. King practically gallops away (no horse needed) as the impetuous Virginian, Richard Henry Lee.
Robert Case as the other major character, John Dickinson from Pennsylvania, supplies a worthy nemesis for Adams. Case makes him smart as a whip, sure of his influence over the other conservatives, purposely goading Adams into fisticuffs, knowing just how to rile his easily ruffled opponent. Among the non-members of Congress, Danny Bolton shines as the almost always patient Congressional secretary and Finn Clougherty delivers a heartbreaking “Momma Look Sharp” about the high price foot soldiers pay in every war.