`1776' hits usual patriotic notes

Ford revival sparks no revolutions

Theater Review

March 19, 2003|By J. Wynn Rousuck | J. Wynn Rousuck,SUN THEATER CRITIC

More than halfway into the musical 1776, a number is sung from the viewpoint of a dying young soldier. At Monday's opening at Ford's Theatre, hearing this song while President Bush was addressing the nation about impending war lent an eerie poignancy to this patriotic musical.

For the most part, however, director David H. Bell has mounted a reverent, sturdy revival that displays few fresh -- or revolutionary -- insights.

With a score by a songwriter and former history teacher named Sherman Edwards, this history-lesson musical seemed unlikely Broadway fare when it debuted in 1969. But thanks largely to its sprightly book by Peter Stone, 1776 defied naysayers and proved that even the delegates to the Second Continental Congress could make entertaining song-and-dance men.

Ford's production features a mostly strong cast led by Lewis Cleale as "obnoxious and disliked" John Adams. And the opening number, "For God's Sake, John, Sit Down," slickly accomplishes the dual tasks of establishing Adams' persistent, outspoken character and the uphill battle he faces persuading the Congress to support independence.

Just about the only person capable of calming down irascible Adams is his even-tempered wife, Abigail, and the epistolary duets Cleale sings with Anne Kanengeiser, as this patient spouse, are the production's loveliest moments.

Variations in tone are among the chief factors responsible for the lively and engaging nature of 1776, and in addition to romantic duets, rousing political numbers and the dirge to the dying soldier mentioned above ("Momma Look Sharp," movingly sung by Chris Peluso), there are several comic interludes.

One of the most effective is "The Lees of Old Virginia," sung with bravado and vocal richness by Graham Rowat. As cocksure Richard Henry Lee, Rowat bolts around the stage brandishing a riding crop and taking evident delight in turning words into adverbs by tacking his name ("ly" as in "Lee") onto the end.

On the opposite end of the stylistic spectrum, as Edward Rutledge of South Carolina, Trent Blanton delivers a dark and threatening rendition of "Molasses to Rum," in which he impersonates a slave auctioneer to illustrate the northerners' hypocrisy on the issue of slavery.

Regrettably, two of the weaker cast members play key historic characters. David Huddleston cuts a jovial -- and rotund -- figure as Benjamin Franklin, but singing is not his forte. And James Ludwig overdoes the boyish self-absorption of Thomas Jefferson, making petulance appear to be the defining trait of this relatively young, but brilliant, delegate.

1776 was originally performed without an intermission; director Bell, however, has followed the example of the 1997 Broadway revival and inserted a break immediately after Peluso's mournful and unsettling "Momma Look Sharp." Precedent or not, it's a decidedly odd place to interrupt the proceedings.

And, though the look of the production is enhanced by designer Mariann Verheyen's period costumes, the flow of the action is impeded by the cumbersome, movable floor-to-ceiling shutters that set designer James Leonard Joy has created to surround the chamber of the Continental Congress.

Overall, however, 1776 remains a stirring tribute to the principles on which this country was founded -- as well as a reminder that compromise is an essential element of statesmanship.

In the final scene at Ford's, when the delegates are signing the Declaration of Independence, the orchestra ups the volume, and the increasingly loud and discordant notes nearly drown out the ringing of the Liberty Bell. A rare instance of an interpretive liberty in a production that plays it safe in most other respects, these closing notes offer a chilling warning of the ever-present dangers of drowning out this country's fundamental principles.

1776

Where: Ford's Theatre, 511 10th St., N.W., Washington

When: 7:30 p.m. Tuesdays-Saturdays, matinees at 2:30 p.m. Sundays (call for other matinee dates and times); through June 1

Tickets: $29-$45

Call: 202-347-4833

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