At first thought, a musical based on the deliberations of the Continental Congress that led up to the signing of the Declaration of Independence sounds like a dry subject for a musical. After all, anyone who has attended a committee meeting about anything will understand how difficult they are to endure—and this one went on for years.
However, 1776, the musical, with music and lyrics by Sherman Edwards and a book by Peter Stone, succeeds on many levels. It is a thoughtful character study of the likes of Thomas Jefferson, Ben Franklin and mostly the "obnoxious and disliked" (as he is frequently described) John Adams. The show is also an historical reenactment of a turning point in the history of the world that is portrayed with accuracy and with little extraneous added.
One of the most important moments in the show, being revived by Lyric Stage, is a surprise to some in the audience. Many are unaware that the demands of the south to delete the mention of slavery in the declaration, on threat of withholding their vote (which had to be unanimous), brings into stark relief just which part of "all men" it was "self-evident" the founding fathers thought were "created equal."
Hearing the same racist words, which would echo through the centuries, coming out of the mouth of South Carolina's Edward Rutledge, is revelatory. Could this battle have been resolved right there and then? Alas, no. The can was kicked down the annals of history and eventually erupted into the Civil War, women's suffrage, the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s and finally as the work-in-painful-progress of the extension of equal rights to gays and lesbians.
It is the perfect musical to be presented in this highly disputed and polarizing election season. It shows that, as the French say, plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose ("the more things change, the more they are the same thing"). Politicians arguments are nothing new and compromise frequently means the total capitulation of one side or the other, an argument we hear on today's campaign trail. Getting the civics lesson from 1776 is reason enough to attend—and bring the kids, neighbors and grandparents.
As a musical, though, this is not Show Boat, The Most Happy Fella or South Pacific. All of the music is serviceable. It's pleasant enough and advances the plot, but is totally forgettable. But "serviceable" is better than poor or bad, which this musical is not. In the hands of musical director Jay Dias and director Cheryl Denson, a talented cast of fine singing actors, and a 30-piece symphony orchestra, Edwards' music rises to the occasion. Just don't expect to leave with a tune stuck in your head.
In fact, there is a scene in the first act where the music is completely dispensable. It goes on for at least 30 minutes of lots of talk without one note of music. The ever-creative director Cheryl Denson keeps that dry spell moving, but when the next song arrives, we gasp at it like a glass of water in the desert.
Vocally, Amber Nicole Guest, as Abigail Adams, gets first prize. Again. She was terrific as Rosabella in Lyric's last show, The Most Happy Fella, but maybe even in better voice for this production. She possesses a stunningly beautiful lyric soprano voice, and while she is putting it to good use in the musical theater, it is opera's loss.
Brian Gonzales, as the irascible John Adams, comes in second. He has a lovely baritone voice, but is a little on the small side (if you can tell with the ever-present distortions of amplification) that would rule out the more popera big voice roles.
However, he is a master at creating a totally believable character and it is not a surprise that he is on everyone's radar as a big star on his way up. Speaking of stars, David Coffee, one of the area's best character actors, does a star turn as the cantankerous Ben Franklin. In Coffee's able hands, Franklin is always in the process of thinking up his "sayings" and in being his own greatest fan. But when he erupts and exerts his considerable force of personality, everyone just says "Yes Sir" and falls in line in a flash.
Bryant Martin is an example of luxury casting in the role of Thomas Jefferson. He did his expected excellent job in the role, but we didn't get to experience the full range of this fine singing actor as we did when he played Curly in Oklahoma! last season at Lyric. Maranda Harrison is not quite as successful as his wife, Martha. Vocally, she is a little squeaky and plays Martha as a ditzy girl-toy.
Kyle Cotton, who greatly impressed as Jud Fry in the aforementioned Oklahoma!, is Edward Rutledge, the South Carolina delegate who gummed up the racial works. Once again, it is his ability to physically inhabit his character that is so outstanding. Vocally, on Sunday at least, he was not as strong. He pushed the voice, which caused him to go sharp, and his diction left many of us wondering what he was so worked up about.
Drenda Lewis does a fine job with historically accurate costumes and Phillip Plowman works overtime on all the dozens of wigs that were the rage of fashion for men at the time. The rest of the male-heavy cast—Jeff Bailey, Lon Barrera, Russell Batchelor, Jonathan Bragg, David Cook, Christopher Curtis, Parker Fitzgerald, Gordon Fox, Kevin Friemel, Joseph Holt, M. Shane Hurst, Michael Isaac, Art Kedzierski, Mark Oristano, Randy Pearlman, Ben Phillips, Michael Pricer, Neil Rogers, Max Swarner, James Williams and Chip Wood—are all up to the high standards that Lyric Stage sets. The ensemble singing is clean and virile and may use authentic accents that match their respective characters.
We know you're sick of politics right now, but this production deserves a "yes" vote.