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Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

John Behlmann, John Larroquette, and Santino Fontana
Photo by Joan Marcus

Of all the musicals crying out for the City Center Encores! series to release them from theatrical purgatory—1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, The Golden Apple, Love Life1776 would seem to be the least likely prospect imaginable. Not merely because this musical about the drafting and signing of the Declaration of Independence was a big hit (1,217 performances) of relatively recent vintage (1969), with an absurdly faithful movie version (from 1972, starring most of the original cast) and one acclaimed Broadway revival (1997) under its belt. But because it's that rare musical—maybe the rarest musical—where the book (by Peter Stone), rather than the songs (by Sherman Edwards), is the main attraction. For a series that was founded with the implicit goal of bringing to ear scores that deserved another listen even if their shows didn't, 1776 is not an easy fit, as the current mounting (running through Sunday) aptly proves.

This is not to say that the score, a few steps above functional but a few steps below classic, doesn't sound good. It does. Edwards's songs meld vaudeville and burlesque with old-fashioned raucousness and a convincing 18th-Century delicacy as they treat such topics as the inefficacy of Congress (in this case, the Continental variety), the Southern aristocracy, writing the Declaration itself, practical right-leaning philosophy, the lows and highs of the slave trade, and a bit of romance. Eddie Sauter's choice orchestrations, which combine historical sweep with a giddy drum-and-fife playfulness, are rich and diverse, and sound marvelous as tackled by the full-size Encores! Orchestra under the baton of guest musical director Ben Whiteley. And with gifted musical veterans on hand like Santino Fontana, Christiane Noll, and Alexander Gemignani, it's not poorly vocalized.

In 1776, though, it's the scenes that sing. This is no small feat given how much of the running time is devoted to more than two dozen characters arguing the pros and cons of the 13 colonies demanding freedom from the tyrannical rule of King George III, the immediate and long-ranging political implications of such an act, and even the grammatical minutiae of finalizing the document itself. Sure, there's some comedy relief, but it's the exception, not the rule—the headlining event here really is the maneuvering of the small band of pro-independence forces trying to bring everyone to their side by any means necessary. You may know how it ends, but the journey to that point, which features a seamless blend of ink-and-parchment fact and artful invention, is symphonic in its scope and the joy it evokes.

Christiane Noll and Santino Fontana
Photo by Joan Marcus

Stone is rightly celebrated for a 30-minute song-free stretch in the first third that introduces us to the major players in proto-America's first saga: John Adams, agitator from Massachusetts, the leader of the independence brigade; Benjamin Franklin, Pennsylvanian wit, polymath, and life-lover; Thomas Jefferson, the soft-spoken but brilliant Virginian writer who's torn between creating a country and reuniting with his lovely bride after six months; John Dickinson from Pennsylvania, who sees Adams's war against the crown as treasonous and a threat to personal property; and on and on. But whether it's Adams bullying Jefferson into picking up the pen (and shipping in his wife to, uh, unblock him creatively), the infinitely tangled scenes of debate and coercion as allegiances shift every which way, or the lengthy, tender correspondences between Adams and his wife, Abigail, Stone captures throughout these larger-than-legend characters and their unique, meaningful situations with flair and fidelity.

The result of this is what many aficionados consider musical theatre's greatest libretto, but it comes at a steep cost: 1776 functions more as a play than as a musical, and thus makes steeper dramatic demands of its directors and performers. That's where this version gets into trouble. Director Garry Hynes hasn't cut a lot for her "concert adaptation," which is a plus for any Encores! outing (especially this one), but she also hasn't brought out enough of its inherent vitality. Beyond the issues of her own sedate but unfocused staging, Chris Bailey's dull-edged choreography, Anna Louizos's by-the-numbers set and Ken Billington's blasé lighting, almost none of the actors have had the time they need with roles this complex.

John Behlmann is one-note morose as Jefferson, not waging a layered war between his libido and his love of country. Over and over again, John Larroquette falls back on sitcom-honed shtick as Franklin, imbuing one of the most fascinating of Founding Fathers with none of the pensive thoughtfulness that can contrast so delightfully against his earthier inclinations. In a performance of garish inappropriateness, Bryce Pinkham plays the conservative Dickinson with such unremitting falsetto flounciness that this antagonistic titan is left without an ounce of the authority he needs to believably battle the domineering Adams. In the small but critical part of James Wilson, Laird Mackintosh is self-consciously milquetoast and utterly ineffective.

Others have not had the time to overcome other obstacles that have been forced upon them. Costume designer Terese Wadden has outfitted everyone in indistinct, and unusually unflattering, modern clothing, which makes it all but impossible to tell many of the congressional delegates apart, and leaves Christiane Noll in an unflattering flannel shirt, vest, and jeans that force her to push a paper-thin "contemporary farmer" personality beyond the delicate writing's ability to support it. And Gemignani presents such a blindingly obvious Edward Rutledge that there's no sense of surprise when he turns dark; he's supposed to be a handsome, genteel young man who explodes while justifying the Triangle Trade in "Molasses to Rum," but in Gemignani's hands he's a sneering skinhead.

Although much has been made of this production's diverse casting (likely to keep spiritual pace with Lin-Manuel Miranda's megahit Hamilton), it's not all ideal. André de Shields, a wonderful star in the right piece, is totally wrong for Rhode Island's broad, rum-swilling Stephen Hopkins and Terence Archie brings nothing of interest to New Hampshire's Josiah Bartlett. Jubilant Sykes does not project any of the show-stopping bravado Richard Henry Lee needs for "The Lees of Old Virginia." And Nikki Renée Daniels (The Book of Mormon) is appealing enough as Martha Jefferson, but she stops short of thrilling.

Of the rest, some actors suffice (Michael McCormick as John Hancock; Robert Sella as the secretary, Charles Thomson; Macintyre Dixon as Andrew McNair, his dopey janitor uniform notwithstanding), and others are quite good (Michael Medeiros as ailing Delaware patriot Caesar Rodney, Ric Stoneback as Maryland's Samuel Chase, John Hickok as Georgia's eternally conflicted Lyman Hall, John-Michael Lyles as the courier who brings dispatches from General George Washington). But ultimately it's Adams that matters most, and in Fontana, this production has a good one.

He reads too young, of course, and he's constantly fighting to suppress his immense natural charm to better portray a man who's frequently described as "obnoxious and disliked." He does, however, convey just the right fiery restlessness, he has stage presence to spare, and he leaves you caring deeply about Adams's crusade and what he's willing to sacrifice to get there. You see in him the crucial growth and change you need to as he evolves from grandstanding discontent to great compromiser, with his bookending numbers ("Sit Down, John" and "Is Anybody There?") easily among the evening's best.

They're sublimely sung, too—I've seen better-acted and better-sung Adamses, but none that better fused those qualities into a single, homogeneous personality. Fontana demonstrates what 1776 can be when allowed to rise into its own highest echelons of possibility; the rest of this production is bogged down in the words that simply haven't had the opportunity to become musical enough.

Through April 3
New York City Center's Mainstage, 55th Street between 6th and 7th Avenues
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