KPBS AIRDATE: July 04, 2003
Timing is everything, onstage or off. So, there’s no better moment to celebrate our Independence than to revisit the signing of its Declaration, by seeing the patriotic musical, “1776.” This isn’t the way Miss Bigbottom taught it to you in junior high. She never told you that Ben Franklin was a dirty old man. Or that John Adams was a despised rabble-rouser. Or that newlywed Tom Jefferson could barely stay out of bed long enough to write the famous document. But some things haven’t changed. Like the political in-fighting, pet-peeves, high-flying egos, behind-the-scenes intrigues and tempestuous turf battles that still characterize our Congress. Composer/lyricist Sherman Edwards spent 9 1/2 years researching and creating the show, with librettist Peter Stone. The result garnered four Tony Awards, including Best Musical, when it opened on Broadway in 1969 and it ran for three years. As hot as it was in Philadelphia that historic summer and as blistering as the tempers became, last year’s productions at Starlight Musical Theatre and Lamb’s Players Theatre left me cold. But there’s been a transplantation and a transformation. The Lamb’s production has moved into the Lyceum Theatre in Horton Plaza, and the effect is liberating — and often exhilarating. Half the cast of 25 has been changed or shifted, and the piece is lighter and tighter. The humor sparkles, and coming down the aisles into the audience allows the story to become almost conspiratorial. We can feel the heat in that room, both literally and figuratively.
Robert Smyth is even more commanding as the pugnacious Adams, and he’s in far better voice. Tom Stephenson is ever-more delectable as the libidinous Franklin, and good-looking, lanky Matt Davis remains delightfully haughty as Richard Henry Lee, who stops the show with “The Lees of Virginia.” David S. Humphrey makes a dashing addition as the sober but sensual Jefferson, and understudy Sandy Campbell brings her striking voice and presence to Abigail Adams. As the courier from Gen. Washington’s dying troops, Michael Elliott does a heart-wrenching job on “Momma Look Sharp.” And John Polhamus reprises his song of the South, “Molasses to Rum,” which implicates the north in the slave trade. This scene illustrates a crucial lost opportunity in our history, when the slavery paragraph was struck from the Declaration to assure its passage. Overall, a thrilling story, beautifully told, gorgeously costumed, attractively designed, wonderfully sung. It’s amazing that, 227 years later, the outcome still holds us in suspense. Incredible what a motivated Congress can accomplish in mere weeks, even days. Would that it were so today. But let’s celebrate the past, if not the present. Exercise your freedom: Go to the theater.
I’m Pat Launer, for KPBS news.
>©2003 Patté Productions Inc.