By Vicki Paris Goodman
In 16 years of reviewing theater, I’ve given no more than three standing ovations. Well, I stood without hesitation at the conclusion of 1776, Musical Theatre West’s phenomenal musical dramatizing the events leading up to the signing of the Declaration of Independence.
A highly entertaining history lesson that follows actual events far more closely than our children’s school textbooks do, 1776 depicts the vision and passion of the abrasive John Adams, our country’s second president. It was Adams’s foresight and dedication that prompted the break from Great Britain and the establishment of the United States of America.
Mostly set in Philadelphia’s Continental Congress chamber– the commanding room displaying fine stately detail– the show features a roster of representatives of the original 13 colonies, with John Hancock presiding over the body.
With book by Peter Stone, music and lyrics by Sherman Edwards, 1776 pits the visionary against the safety-seeking, the North against the South, and the boat rockers against those willing to accept the status quo. Yes, at least half the Congress had to be convinced that independence from England was the right course.
Nick Degruccio directs a 26-member cast that is utterly astounding in terms of dramatic power, comic precision and vocal quality. A more talented ensemble could not have been assembled, even on Broadway. And every word of dialogue is easily heard, to boot. Pinch me, please!
MTW Artistic Director Steven Glaudini stars as John Adams. He is forceful, dynamic and, at the same time, surprisingly winning. With so much of the show’s dialogue devoted to Adams’s coarseness and unpopularity, I couldn’t help liking him immensely. The irony struck me as intensely funny. I don’t think my smiling face relaxed for the entire first act, which lasted a fleeting hour and three quarters.
The first musical number, “Sit Down, John,” featuring Adams and the Congress, sets the tone for the entertaining legislative battles to come. Congressional arguments are interrupted frequently by trivial business for which Adams, of course, has no patience.
Favorite scenes are too numerous to mention. Some are those in which Adams seeks the advice and assistance of his wife Abigail. Tami Tappan Damiano’s Abby is centered and practical and has a softening effect on her husband. Their interchanges are endearing, and they expose a vulnerability in Adams that doesn’t appear elsewhere.
Richard Henry Lee, played by none other than Davis Gaines of Broadway Phantom fame, had the audience in stitches performing “The Lees of Old Virginia.”
In yet another rousing segment, Martha Jefferson (Jessica Bernard) charms Adams and Ben Franklin (Stephen Vinovich) in a fabulous scene in which she gushes over her husband’s violin playing.
In a number reminiscent of musical chairs, no one on the “declaration committee” wishes to write the document. The hysterical “But, Mr. Adams” features Adams, Franklin, Thomas Jefferson (John Bisom), Robert Livingston (Jason Webb) and Roger Sherman (James May) singing and dancing in what amounts to “the musical quill.” (Jefferson, of course, winds up with the pen.)
The more serious second act comes to a head over Jefferson’s paragraph abolishing slavery. As Edward Rutledge of South Carolina, Robert J. Townsend brings the house down with his haunting performance of the stirring “Molasses to Rum.”
Musical director Matthew Smedal conducts a first-rate pit orchestra. Yolanda Rowell’s fantastic 18th-Century costumes, along with Cliff Senior’s wigs, are true to life and represent fantastic variation of color and style.
Other than its depiction of Adams’s dedication to the cause of independence, the show teaches us that our country’s founding also required the military acumen, against all odds, of General George Washington, as well as the literary talent of Jefferson and the considerable and patient wisdom of Franklin. In addition, we should not minimize the eventual courage of the other members of the Continental Congress, for all of these men literally risked their lives, their property and the welfare of their families to set our nation in motion. Had the experiment proved unsuccessful, King George would surely have hanged them all, and they knew it. It is against this very serious backdrop that the delightful 1776 takes place.
Musical Theatre West’s production of 1776 continues at the Carpenter Performing Arts Center, located on the campus of Cal State Long Beach through July 25. Performances are Thursday (7/22) at 8pm, Fridays (7/16, 7/23) at 8pm, Saturdays (7/17, 7/24) at 2pm and 8pm, Sundays (7/18, 7/25) at 2pm and Sunday (7/18) at 7pm. Tickets range from $30 to $80 and can be purchased through the MTW Box Office at (562) 856-1999 x4 or online at musical.org.