KPBS AIRDATE: August 4, 1993
It isn’t quite the way Miss Bresbacker taught it to you in junior high school. She never told you that Ben Franklin was a dirty old man. Or that John Adams was an arrogant S.O.B. Or that young newlywed Tom Jefferson could barely stay out of bed long enough to write the Declaration of Independence. But here it all is in the witty, somewhat revisionist musical history lesson, “1776.” And Miss Bresbacker be damned.
The slick, cynical show, the creation of composer/lyricist Sherman Edwards and librettist Peter Stone, made a three-year splash on Broadway in 1969. It’s striking that nothing has changed. Not since the second Continental Congress, not in the 103rd Congress of today.
There’s still snoring and boozing, logrolling and backbiting. Petty squabbles among petty people. “We piddle, twiddle and resolve” says John Adams, in the spirited song of the same name. “Not one damn thing do we solve.” Two and a quarter centuries later and… what’s new? C-SPAN should only be so entertaining. Maybe a few musical numbers would help….
Speaking of which, the songs of “1776” may not stay with you. But they can be funny, moving or inspiring, and they bring humanity, if not humility, to these larger-than-life historic figures who were faced with an enormous task — assisting at the birth of a new nation.
In giving birth to the Moonlight’s production, guest director Donald Brenner has whipped his highly competent cast into very attractive shape, with sartorial assistance from the Fullerton Civic Light Opera’s costume loans, and lively musical support from an impressive young orchestra in the pit. Brenner creates beautiful stage pictures, and infuses the whole with lively spirit and magisterial authority.
As the swaggering, bull-headed Adams, Randall Hickman is terrific, and Charles Jackam is a perfect foil as his humorous, lecherous, proverb-spouting sidekick, Benjamin Franklin. As South Carolina’s Edward Rutledge, Sean Tamburrino does a bone-chilling rendition of “Molasses to Rum,” a powerful, scathing indictment of Northern hypocrisy in regard to slavery. One missed moment in the show is the very clever song, “The Lees of Old Virginia,” which should be a show-stopper and here falls flat.
But everything else in the production soars. To get some great history, remember your geography and head north to Vista and Moonlight Amphitheatre.
But if you like your musicals more contemporary than historical, hot-foot it to the Theatre in Old Town, for a bubbly revue with some of the most clever lyrics and hummable melodies around. It’s “2 x 5,” which means two writers, five singers, and features some classy, classic work by John Kander and Fred Ebb, who have given us fabulous scores like “Cabaret” and “Chicago,” and, most recently, “Kiss of the Spider Woman,” for which they just won a Tony.
The cast is 2 by 3: two talented and reliable regulars (Steve Anthony and Brian Trent) and three new additions: Catherine Fries, Melissa McCarl and Tracy Venner. The almost 30 songs in the show are woven together with surprising seamlessness. Director Paula Kalustian and choreographers Jill and Steve Anthony keep the pace lively and the action engaging and often unpredictable.
Nothing goes quite the way you’d expect it in Kander and Ebb songs: Hope always has a dark underbelly; despair is pierced by a sliver of light.
“2 x 5” is a fun evening, but not a mindless one. These songs tell stories; they have messages. The material may not be historical, but it will have long-range significance.
I’m Pat Launer, for KPBS radio.
©1993 Patté Productions Inc.