We all know that the Declaration of Independence is one of the most important documents ever written. But have you ever actually tried to read it? Pretty boring, right? Who would expect such a dry document could make for an exciting story?
But that’s the genius of 1776, the musical now being given a fine production at the Media Theatre. It’s a show that you might think wouldn’t work as a musical. Sherman Edwards’ songs have memorable melodies, but many of the songs are burdened by clunky lyrics (it’s undoubtedly the only musical that rhymes “North America” with “Philadelphia”). It has almost no opportunities for dancing, something that you rarely see in a musical. At one point there’s a thirty-minute gap between songs. There are only two female characters, both of whom are shoehorned into the show awkwardly. And as for its plot, well, we all know what happens at the end.
Yet 1776 is anything but a dry, dull history lesson. Peter Stone’s ingenious book makes 1776 work by focusing on the struggle that brought the Declaration into being. It depicts the members of the Second Continental Congress not as stiff, upright heroes but as personalities who are frequently in conflict with each other. They’re tormented by the hot Philadelphia weather, by their duties to their home colonies, and especially by the “obnoxious and disliked” John Adams, who is relentless in his push for independence from Britain.
Director Jennie Eisenhower plays up the conflict by filling the stage with vivid personalities, nearly all of whom get a chance to make a distinct impression. Ben Dibble gives us an Adams full of tartness and indignation, and he brings righteous fervor to his final number, “Is Anybody There?” Ben Franklin is Adams’ main ally in this fight, and John Morrison – who resembles Franklin so much you might swear he stepped out of a hundred dollar bill – makes for a droll, sparkling partner. (Patricia DelSordo did the excellent hair, wig, and makeup design.) Joseph O’Brien has less to do as Thomas Jefferson but provides steady support.
Meredith Beck is charming as Martha Jefferson, and Elyse Langley provides plenty of warmth (plus a strong soprano) as Abigail Adams. Abigail makes her entrances and exits directly through the aisles of the theatre – a shrewd choice by Eisenhower, as it places Abigail’s gentle scenes in a distinctly different world from the bustle of Congress.
There are also vigorous contributions from other members of the Congress, including Luke Brahdt’s sturdily sung Edward Rutledge and Larry Lees’ broadly comic Richard Henry Lee. Geoff Bruen, and David Nikolas make subtle but forceful contributions as two representatives whose uncertainty proves crucial. And local high school student Thomas Lock shows off a robust tenor on the show’s best song, “Mama Look Sharp.”
All of the individual singing voices are strong. Carl Park’s sound mix is good, and Christopher Ertelt’s nine-piece orchestra never overwhelms the singers.
Katie Yamaguchi’s costumes have the expected fanciful flourishes, while Matthew Miller’s set design mixes period details (brickwork and Colonial-style window frames) with a simple black backdrop. A large video projection wall makes up for the absence of scenery, occasionally showing a map of the colonies or (during Rutledge’s song “Molasses to Rum”) a slave auction. But the video wall is underused; for most of the night, a dark image of a brick wall uses up that valuable space. (The scenes where the Congressional secretary reads missives from General George Washington could have used some illustrations of the hardships Washington’s colonial troops faced.)
But in the last scene, as the members of Congress sign the Declaration, the video wall springs to life. It’s a great final image in a musical filled with powerful moments.
Running Time: Two hours and 40 minutes, including an intermission.