Regional Reviews: New Jersey
1776 At Paper Mill
Also see Bob's review of New Year's Eve
Never forgetting that this vaunted American musical is both musical play and musical comedy, director Gordon Greenberg has directed 1776 in a full out, emphatic fashion that fully conveys its musical comedy delights along with the suspense, fury and passion of Peter Stone's clear and masterful distillation of the complexities and issues confronting the Continental Congress. The Convention is represented by twenty-two of its attendees, including the secretary and custodian each of who has been drawn with remarkable distinctiveness and dimension. Along with a handful of additional personages, they are vividly brought to life here by an outstanding cast of veteran actors well known to aficionados of the Broadway stage.
The vociferous, obnoxious John Adams of Massachusetts is one of strongest advocates for breaking off ties with England and forming a union of the colonies. However, the witty and wise Benjamin Franklin of Pennsylvania convinces him that he must take a back seat to his better-liked ally Thomas Jefferson of Virginia in efforts to gain the Congress' support for their position. Furthermore, there is the cool conservative John Dickinson of Pennsylvania who is intractable in his opposition to Adams and has control over James Wilson who will have the vote which will determine whether Dickinson or Franklin prevails in their delegation. Edward Rutledge of South Carolina, whom the delegates of North Carolina and Georgia will follow in a unity of the Southern colonies, is far from convinced and trashes the other colonies over their hypocrisies on the issue of slavery. As if all this is not daunting enough, even supporters of independence agree that as a practical matter, the vote of the colonies must be unanimous.
Robert Cuccioli dominates the stage as John Dickinson. It is not only Cuccioli's smooth regal bearing and arch, supercilious line readings, but also the intensity and thoughtfulness with which he listens to all that is said that makes Dickinson so convincingly formidable. It is worth noting that director Greenberg has all of his Congress involved in the proceedings at all times, but Cuccioli is particularly riveting in contemplation. Cuccioli's performance of "Cool Conservative Men" is vocally and dramatically right on target. Conrad John Schuck is deft and delightful as Ben Franklin. Appropriately, Schuck breaks no new ground, but instead provides us with the Franklin whom we have come to love in full flower. James Barbour is excellent as a thoughtful and intelligent Edward Rutledge. Although Rutledge insists on the economic need for slaves in his colony, his abhorrence of its inhumanity does not feel out of place with his character. Barbour momentarily stops the show with his overwhelmingly powerful, stinging rendition of "Molasses to Rum to Slaves." It will be long remembered by all those who see and hear it. Among the exuberant cast, only Don Stephenson's interpretation of John Adams is too broad for the occasion. When the talented Stephenson relaxes a little and settles into the role, his Adams will become a proper fit for this excellent production.
Kevin Earley is a winning young Tom Jefferson. Lauren Kennedy as his Martha so gloriously sings "He Plays the Violin" that we long to see more of her. Kerry O'Malley as Abigail Adams sings delightfully in her letter duets with her John. The purest musical comedy song is expertly delivered by Aaron Ramey as Richard Henry Lee. His "The Lees of Old Virginia" is so joyous that we avidly eat it up, corn and all. Griffin Matthews lends his vocal excellence to the poignant "Mama Look Sharp." MacIntyre Dixon (Stephen Hopkins), Nick Wyman (John Hancock), Ric Stoneback (Samuel Chase), Tom Treadwell (Dr. Lyman Hall), John O'Creagh (Andrew McNair), Jeff Brooks (Rev. John Witherspoon) and James Coyle (Caesar Rodney) each make large, distinctive impressions in key supporting roles.
Composer-lyricist Sherman Edwards was a high school history teacher and young songwriter when he first conceived 1776. A decade elapsed before he was able to find a producer who was able to convince Peter Stone to write the book. During this time, Edwards quit his teaching job to write songs full time, research his subject at the Morristown, New Jersey public library, and attempt to scrabble together a book for his concept and songs. Given the strength of Stone's long book and the fact that the nature of the lyrics precluded popular hits (the lyrics for John and Abigail Adams' letter are taken from their actual correspondence), it is all too easy to underestimate the marvelous score which Sherman Edwards has written. Melodious, humorous, joyous, powerful, funny and smoothly integrated, Edwards is deserving of inclusion in the ranks of our finest theatre music.
1776 is a great American musical, uncompromisingly literate and adult as well as ideal family entertainment. At Paper Mill, it is receiving a lively, rousing production courtesy of director Gordon Greenberg and an extraordinary cast.
1776 continues performances through May 17, 2009 (Evenings: Wednesdays, Thursdays & Sundays 7:30 p.m.; Fridays & Saturdays 8 p.m. / Matinees: Thursdays, Saturdays & Sundays 2 p.m. at the Paper Mill Playhouse, Brookside Drive, Millburn, NJ 07041. Box Office: 973-376-4343; online: www.papermill.org.
1776 Music and Lyrics by Sherman Edwards; book by Peter Stone; directed by Gordon Greenberg
The Continental Congress