Reviewed by Will Stackman
Revivals of "1776", history teacher Sherman Edwards' show about writing the Declaration of Independence with a book by Peter Stone have become less frequent over the years since the show won the Tony and the Drama Critics Circle in 1969. Except perhaps around Boston, where this 26 role full-length musical seems to show up biennially. At the moment it's the Lyric Stage Company's season opener, helmed by Spiro Veloudous, their Producing Artistic Director, with a cast featuring some of the area's best music theatre personnel. There's been renewed interest in John Adams and the rest of the Founding Fathers recently, perhaps because the current political leadership seems puny at best, perhaps because as this show reminds us, there are regional rivalries and social ills still unresolved, not to mention new arrivals seeking the American dream and a worsening foreign danger.
Playing the central figure of John Adams, Peter A. Carey brings an acerbic intensity to the Quincy native and Harvard grad, who defended the British troopers involved in the Boston Massacre--and got them off; who wrote the Constitution of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts; whose diplomacy was crucial throughout the Revolution; who became President; and who was indeed disliked by many who nevertheless succumbed to his arguments. In short, a model Boston Yankee, who'd rather be right. Boston-born Dr. Benjamin Franklin, played by genial J.T.Turner from the North Shore, was equally determined to achieve Independency, once he'd given up on England, but less worried about being right--though he was sure he was. Eileen Nugent returns to the Lyric as Abigail Adams, idealized as John's "Dearest Friend." The author of the Declaration--at Adams urging--Thomas Jefferson, is played by Terry O'Malley, whose better half, Martha, is played by winsome Jennifer Ellis, both a bit glamorized but convincing. We've learned a lot recently about the political careers and personal lives of all three men, but in the idealized context of this music drama, their essential heroism is primary.
The opposition is led by Frank Gayton as John Dickinson, a member of the Pennsylvania delegation, and from South Carolina, planter Edward Rutledge, played by local favorite, IRNE winner Christopher Chew, whose aria about the triangle trade of molasses to rum to slaves is the show's penultimate number. Timothy Smith, as irrepressible Richard Henry Lee, an FFV, enlivens the first act with the closest this operetta comes to musical comedy. Not only is this the largest cast on the Lyric stage to date, it's also perhaps the strongest, from veteran actor John Davin as ailing Cesar Romney of Maryland to B.C. student Andrew Glynn, the weary Courier, whose simple ballad about a dying soldier closes the first act. Commendable performances occur in crucial scenes, by John Costa as vacillating Judge Wilson of Pennsylvania, by Gerard Slattery as rotund Samuel Chase of Maryland, by Dafydd Rees as Col. McKean the Scot from Delaware, and by Brendan McNab as Dr. Lyman Hall, who breaks with his fellow Southerners.
Janie E. Howland's somewhat abstract set avoids making Independence Hall seem oppressive, though one might wish that there were more servants available to move the furniture about. Music director Jonathan Goldberg keeps the tunes lively from behind the backcloth, and Ilyse Robbins finds appropriate choreography for the several moments that require it. The high point is of course Adam's dancing with Mrs. Jefferson to Franklin's amazement. Gail Astrid Buckley makes the hired period costumes suit the cast, from Dan Cozzens as lean Rev. Witherspoon from New Jersey, a perfect Princeton seminarian, to disreputable Steven Hopkins, the toper from Rhode Island. Scott Clive's lighting is effective, separating the in-one scenes outside the hall from the Congress, which uses every inch of the stage. The technical support and a fine ensemble of local talent makes for an admonitory history lesson as we face up to another possibly decisive mid-term election just after the 5th anniversary of 9/11/2001.