Four years ago, a little musical series opened at the Freud Playhouse at UCLA. It was called "Reprise! -- Broadway's Best in Concert," and its laudable goal was to present concert versions of rarely-produced musicals. Over the years, the tiny concerts grew into more full-fledged productions. The shows gained sets and props; the staging added choreography; and the casts went off-book. Last year, Reprise! dropped the "in Concert" from its title, and deservedly so. But even then, Reprise! was still staging the sort of musicals that could be performed in concert versions, those that had strong scores which were rarely heard in their entirety because of outdated or problematic books. No more. In response to an audience survey, Reprise! starts its fifth season with a production of 1776 -- a best musical Tony winner that had a revival in New York just four years ago; a show with only 13 musical numbers in it; a show equally dependent upon its text as its score. In other words, Reprise! has traded its rarely-produced song-heavy productions for a recently-revived book musical.
1776 does have a great book. It recounts the genesis of America's independence from the point of view of John Adams, apparently the only Congressman to have the foresight to envision the Colonies as an independent country. Adams's first problem is to convince a reluctant Continental Congress to even debate independence. He must also overcome Thomas Jefferson's unwillingness to draft the Declaration, and South Carolina's refusal to sign the document because it outlawed slavery. It will come as no surprise to anyone that Adams eventually overcomes these obstacles; the real beauty of 1776 is that it presents them in such a way that we honestly don't know how he will. As it turns out, Adams uses a combination of comic wheedling, outrageous bullying, and painful compromising to accomplish his goal. The characters in 1776 aren't just names in a history book -- their egos can be catered to; they allow their sexual frustrations to outweigh their duties to their country; and they care more for their own economic well-being than for doing what is right. 1776 succeeds in its retelling of a story we already know because it is telling that story from the perspective of personal interactions we've never seriously considered.
John Adams, the score tells us, is "obnoxious and disliked." He is played by Roger Rees, who is neither. His Adams is certainly determined and easily frustrated, but nobody who trills his "r"s while he playfully twirls a quill pen can legitimately be described as obnoxious. A little half-smirk never far from his lips completes the picture of someone having entirely too much fun on stage. Rees's partner in frivolity is Orson Bean, who attacks the role of a witty, randy, forthright Ben Franklin with gusto. With the exception of a sequence relating to slavery which is given the gravity it deserves, Rees and Bean never take the proceedings seriously, and the upshot is a lighthearted "hey kids, let's put on a show" production.
This backyard production feel is further engendered by a minimal set and a surprising lack of attention to detail. The onstage calendar never seems to be on the right date. A line of dialogue explaining that everyone in Congress must sign the Declaration is belied moments later by a final roll-call that omits several members. And Rees, although he successfully navigates a great deal of songs (especially for someone not known for his singing), is sometimes a beat behind Peter Matz's orchestra.
The sparks that elevate this production above the routine come from some wonderful supporting performances. Marcia Mitzman Gaven's Abigail Adams appears to her husband through letters and visions. Abigail motivates John when he feels he cannot go on, and listening to Gaven's strong, soaring voice, it is easy to understand why. John Scherer's Richard Henry Lee is onstage only to sing the perfectly cheesy "The Lees of Old Virginia," in which he delightfully portrays a man so simultaneously dim and self-centered he believes all adverbs are a tribute to his family name. And Kevin Earley is exceptional as South Carolina's Edward Rutledge, the main antagonist of the piece. A bright, articulate young man, Earley's Rutledge is not cowed by Adams's declamation against slavery. He instead responds with a powerful and chilling rendition of "Molasses to Rum," a brutal indictment of the North for its economic facilitation of slavery. Earley's delivery is merciless, and it brings home the full force of the dreadful bargain that had to be made in order to bring our country into existence.
Both in material and execution, this production is not at all what Reprise! usually offers, and it would be a loss indeed if Reprise! stops giving Los Angeles spectacularly-sung versions of lesser-known musicals. But everyone deserves a frolic now and then, and there are moments in this production that rise above simple good-spirited entertainment.
Reprise! Broadway's Best; Marica Seligson, Producing Artistic Director; Ronn Goswick, Managing Director; presents 1776. Music & Lyrics by Sherman Edwards; Book by Peter Stone; Based on a concept by Sherman Edwards. Original production directed by Peter Hunt; Originally produced on the Broadway stage by Stuart Ostrow. Scenic design by Gary Wissman; Costume design by Scott A. Lane; Lighting design by Tom Ruzika; Sound design by Philip G. Allen; Associate Music Director Thomas Grief; Technical Director Peter Falco; Production Stage Manager Jill Gold; Casting Director Bruce H. Newberg, C.S.A; Press Representative Davidson & Choy Publicity; General Manager Kelly Estrella; Managing Director Ronn Goswick. Produced by Marcia Seligson; Music Direction by Peter Matz; Choreographed by Kay Cole; Directed by Gordon Hunt.
1776 played its last performance at Reprise! at the UCLA Freud Playhouse on September 16, 2001.