Even though we all know how it all turns out, "1776" manages to imbue the struggles of the country's founding fathers with enough tension to keep audiences engaged until its final moments. Indeed, ACT's West Coast premiere of Tony Award-winning director Frank Galati's acclaimed new staging of this musical sparkles with drama, vivid performances and humor, while also capturing the innovation and audacity that it took to craft the Declaration of Independence.
Looking back, history's events can often seem inevitable. "1776" reminds us otherwise. For the most part avoiding didacticism (and taking a great deal of poetic license), this musical play manages to show how things could easily have gone another way entirely. And along the way, it offers up some surprising political insight.
Originally staged on Broadway in 1969 and portraying events of over 230 years past, "1776" nevertheless demonstrates that, although the issues may be slightly different today, there's a lot that hasn't changed in the world of politics. It's still populated by people who have little connection to those they claim to represent, it still requires others to fight the wars the politicians declare, and it still involves the betrayal of principle and deeply questionable compromises in the name of getting things done.
All of this notwithstanding, "1776" delivers a mostly light and upbeat evening's entertainment. Set in the Philadelphia State House where the Declaration of Independence was crafted and signed, much of the humor deals with nothing more serious than the debilitating heat, the plague of horseflies emanating from the nearby stables, Ben Franklin's habit of dozing off during a debate, Rhode Island's representative's fondness for distilled beverages, and the fact that John Adams was "obnoxious and disliked" -- all facts that are verifiable in the historical record.
And while none of the songs is the kind you'll find yourself humming at home the day after, the melodies are engaging, the lyrics clever and frequently comedic, and the delivery invariably excellent.
Still, there are a couple of real standout numbers. One is "Momma, Look Sharp," a heart-wrenching ballad about the personal impacts of war, beautifully delivered by Zach Kenney who plays the courier delivering messages from George Washington to the assembly. And "Molasses to Rum" ends up a show-stealer in the hands of the immensely talented Jarrod Zimmerman who plays one of the Southern representatives demanding the removal of the clause condemning slavery in the original draft of the Declaration.
As John Adams, John Hickok delivers a wise, nuanced, and always engaging performance in the lead role. Andrew Boyer injects a great deal of the comedy as the brilliant and eccentric Benjamin Franklin. As Abigail Adams, Abby Mueller makes a down-to-earth and practical counterpoint to her idealistic and fiery-tempered husband. Like the other female cast member (Andrea Prestinario as Martha Jefferson), Mueller also has a terrific set of pipes.
Russell Metheny's tiered set, dominated by wood tones and towering windows, imbues the action with adequate authority while Mara Blumenfeld's colorful costumes evoke the period and add accent the various characters' traits. The live orchestra provides a buoyant immediacy that infects the entire performance. And, under the wise direction of Frank Galati, song and dance, drama and comedy come together into a seamless, satisfying and consistently captivating musical play.
"1776" reveals itself still relevant 44 years after it was first produced. What is more, its revival proves vibrant, joyfully entertaining and meaty food for thought.
"1776" plays through November 17 at The Geary
Theater, 415 Geary Street, San Francisco. For more information, call 415-749-2228 or visit www.act-sf.org