by Mark G. Auerbach
1776 opens the new season at Connecticut Repertory Theatre, and its first with new Artistic Director Terrence Mann at its helm. Mann stages 1776 with finesse, aided by CRT’s music director John Pike, and a strong company of actors, musicians, and designers. .
1776, best known or its film adaptation which is remarkably true to its original production, was a major Broadway hit of 1969, when it won the Tony Award or Best Musical. It launched the careers of stars William Daniels, Ken Howard, and Betty Buckley. And, in the course of an evening, tells the story of the birth of America in a “hot as hell in Philadelphia” summer, as a group of Colonial leaders draft a declaration of Independence from Great Britain.
Peter Stone’s book is flawless, combining some serious intentions with comic undertones. Sherman Edwards’ score is one of the finest of the musical theatre time period, before rock and jazz infused subsequent musicals. I noticed that in comparison to today;s political rhetoric, the founding fathers, when in agreement or at odds, were more genteel and diplomatic. They behaved like leaders, and were truly concerned with the needs of their constituents.
Mann and company have some challenges. 1776 shines when there’s music and dance, but there are some long interludes of dialogue that slow the pace of the show. The opening tableau of the company on Tim Brown’s well-crafted set, and Michael Chybowski’s lighting is wonderful. John Pike’s musicians capture Edwards’ score’s delights. The choreography is uncredited, but the second-act opener, “Cool, Considerate Men” is great staging. I’ve always been taken bby Martha Jefferson’s “He Plays The Violin”, a song which Betty Buckley introduced. Paige Smith as Martha Jefferson dazzled in that number.
The company as a whole is excellent. Stand-out performances for me were Simon Longnight’s portrayal of the rambunctious Richard Henry Lee oi Virginia; Noah Keiserman’s powerhouse rendition of “Molasses to Rum”, an explanation of slavery in the New World; Richard R. Henry’s jolly Ben Franklin; Jamie LaVerdiere’s grating John Adams, and Will Bryant as Thomas Jefferson.
I have some personal nostalgia for 1776. I was a teen working occasionally in the box-office of the National Theatre in Washington, DC where 1776 had its pre-Broadway tryout. I had to write a review of a play for a theatre class I was taking, and 1776 was my first ever theatre review. As for the review, I didn’t think Broadway would take to 1776. I was so wrong.
Connecticut Repertory Theatre’s Nutmeg Summer Series has always been one of the best summer theatre bets in the area. Next up is the comedy Noises Off, followed by Newsies.
The Connecticut Repertory Theatre presents 1776. Music and lyrics by Sherman Edwards. Book by Peter Stone. Directed by Terrence Mann. Music direction by John Pike. Scenic design by Tim Brown. Costume design by Fan Zhang. Lighting design by Michael Chybowski. Sound design by Michael Vincent Skinner. Through June 10. Harriet S. Jorgensen Theatre. University of Connecticut at Storrs, CT. 860-486-2113 or www.crt.uconn.edu..
Mark G. Auerbach studied theatre at American University and the Yale School of Drama. He’s worked for arts organizations and reported on theatre for newspapers and radio.