Music & Lyrics by Sherman Edwards
Book by Peter Stone
Directed by Joseph Keach-Longo
Performed by Little Theatre of Manchester at Cheney Hall, 177 Hartford Road in Manchester, CT through November 18
How can a musical that came out in 1969, the height of the Flower Power era, looking at events from the Colonial Era still seem so relevant over 40 years later? Perhaps it is the canny Election Year timing of Little Theatre of Manchester’s revival, but 1776 is a date well worth putting on your calendar.
After two years of bruising campaigning, the election is finally upon us. By the time this review appears in print, the fate of the Presidency, a host of other offices, and the expansion of the Manchester Public Library will have been decided. Usually, the victors cheer, the losers slink off to lick their wounds, and many of us breathe a sigh of relief that we don’t have to participate in the democratic process for another two to four years.
What makes 1776 such a wonderful addition to the musical theatre canon has little to do with the music. The songs by Sherman Edwards are not really top drawer when stacked alongside other winners of the Tony Award for Best Musical. What makes 1776 great is the book by Peter Stone. How Stone masterfully builds the drama and tension out of such a familiar event, makes for great theatre.
Anyone with even a minute knowledge of American history knows that in 1776, the Founding Fathers, a Continental Congress representing the original colonies, signed the Declaration of Independence. After two years of bruising campaigning (sound familiar? Reference paragraph #2 of this review), the matter of American independent sovereignty and severing ties with the British crown has been brought to a boil in a hot, fly-infested room in Philadelphia.
We know how this story is going to end. The fact that Stone gets us worried that the men might not get their act together in time to re-inspire and reinforce a downtrodden militia under the banner of General George Washington is quite a feat. The first time I saw 1776 and (SPOILER ALERT) the Founding Fathers sign the Declaration of Independence, I had tears in my eyes. Even those who believe that America is now a crumbling empire or has lost its way will not fail to be moved at the humble, tense and urgent beginnings of our nation.
Mike Zizka, an LTM stalwart, leads the cast as the irascible trouble-maker John Adams. Despite a wavering singing voice, Zizka ideally captures the bull-headedness required to push a rag-tag bunch of self-involved colonies into a United States. 1776 oddly casts Ben Franklin as a bit of a letchy goofball, but Randy Boyd has fun with the part and delivers the gravitas when needed to seal the deal for independence. Similarly, Thomas Jefferson, portrayed by Glenn Campellone, is cast as reticent and wet-behind-the-ears. This is one of the charms of the show – the fact that we are reminded that they were not “demi-gods,” but in fact men with foibles.
One of the oddities of 1776 is that the best songs of the somewhat weak score land in the hands of secondary or tertiary characters. Johnson Flucker has a fine time hamming it up in “The Lees of Old Virginia.” The sole women in the cast, Maria Grove and Heather Auden, both are wonderful in their musical moments. Matt Falkowski as a Minuteman/courier delivers a perfectly lovely rendition of the show’s finest song, the haunting, “Momma, Look Sharp.”
Director Joseph Keach-Longo does a fine job moving things along as Adams does battle with the snotty John Dickinson (played by Bill Quinn) and the effete Edward Rutledge (Christopher Daugherty, who nicely handles the score’s oddest song, “Molasses to Rum”).
The decision to place the Continental Congress on the back half of the stage, relegated within the confines of the Independence Hall setting (designed by Keach-Longo), means that over 20 men are generally clumped in an uncomfortable configuration for the scenes that are the heart and soul of the play’s drama. The stage’s apron is under-utilized, a consistent issue at LTM that distances the audience from the action. The finale feels oddly grim rather than triumphant in a sense, but maybe that fits our current national mood.