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1776
Music and Lyrics by Sherman Edwards, Book by Peter Stone
Directed by Rob Ruggiero
Choreographed by Enrique Brown
The Muny
June 27, 2019

Keith Hines, Adam Heller, Robert Petkoff
Photo: The Muny

The third show of the Muny’s 101st season, and the last before a brief break for 4th of July weekend, is, appropriately enough, the classic musical 1776. That seems like ideal timing for this show whose events lead up to the “original” 4th of July–the one the holiday commemorates. It’s a challenging show to do, considering how “talky” it is for a musical as well as the sheer strength of its book. For the most part, the Muny rises to that challenge. Although there were a few opening night “rough edges” to be smoothed out, this is a well-staged production with an excellent cast and superb, deceptively simple staging.

This musical is 50 years old this year, and it still seems as relevant as ever. It’s a unique show, being as book-focused as it is, and although it’s now often compared to the more recent Hamilton, 1776 is a show that stands on its own merits. In its own way, it set a precedent for a musical about the Founding Fathers that treats them not as saintly figures, but as flawed humans who had to make some serious compromises to achieve their goals. It shows how messy politics can be, highlighting hypocrisy in songs like “Molasses to Rum” as well as the devastating effects of war in the still stunning “Momma, Look Sharp”. Yes, there’s some levity here as well, but there’s also real gravity, and seeing it again, I’m surprised at how well it holds up. The story’s focus is on John Adams (Robert Petkoff), but features several figures, both prominent and not as well-known. Thomas Jefferson (Keith Hines) and Benjamin Franklin (Adam Heller) are key figures, as the bombastic Richard Henry Lee (Ryan Andes), the determined conservative John Dickinson (Ben Davis), the calculating South Carolinian Edward Rutledge (Bobby Conte Thornton), and more. It’s a mostly male cast, with only two women–Abigail Adams (Jenny Powers), who appears onstage in a representation of letters that she and her husband John write to one another; and Martha Jefferson (Ali Ewoldt), who appears briefly to visit her distracted husband and sing the memorable “He Plays the Violin”. Otherwise, there are a lot of men–from the members of the Continental Congress to congressional staff workers like secretary Charles Thomson (Gary Glasgow) and custodian Andrew McNair (Harry Bouvy), as well as a courier (Alex Prakken) who brings a series of ominous dispatches from the unseen General George Washington. Of course, we all know how the events turn out, but the suspense is there anyway, courtesy of book writer Peter Stone who has structured the show remarkably well.

In terms of casting, this production is impressive, with strong, energetic performances from the excellent cast that features a large number of local performers and Muny veterans. Petkoff as Adams strikes just the right notes of authority and belligerent determination, with a strong voice on songs like “Piddle, Twiddle, and Resolve” and the stirring “Is Anybody There?”  His chemistry with Powers’s excellent, smoothly sung Abigail, as well as with Hines and Heller as main allies Jefferson and Franklin is superb. There are also standout performances from Davis as the determined Dickinson, Heller as a delightfully witty Franklin, and George Abud in the small-ish but profoundly important role of Pennsylvania delegate James Wilson. Glasgow as Thomson, Thornton as Rutledge, Joneal Joplin as Rhode Island’s rum-loving Stephen Hopkins, and Patrick Blindauer as Maryland’s Samuel Chase were also memorable. There are far too many cast members to mention them all, but despite a few inconsistent accents (mostly from those playing Southern characters) and occasional missed lines, this is an especially strong cast that I imagine will only get better as the show continues to run. Also, the show picks up steam about halfway through Act One and then maintains its momentum and energy until the end.

Technically, this production shines in its simplicity. Considering the significant improvements to the Muny’s stage and technical facilities for this season, I was a little concerned going in that there might be a temptation for this production the get too flashy or elaborate, and I’m glad to see that isn’t the case.  In fact, this production has used its new capabilities in a commendable way to present a straightforward staging while still showing off a marvelously detailed, elegant set by Luke Cantarella that makes excellent use of the Muny’s turntable, as well as featuring memorable video design by Greg Emetaz. There are also detailed, colorful period costumes by Alejo Vietti, as well as effective lighting by John Lasiter. The Muny Orchestra led by music director James Moore is also impressive, even though there are occasional moments where the music overpowers the singers.

1776 has been a favorite of mine since I discovered it as a teenager from seeing the film and then reading the script and listening to the Broadway cast album. This is the third production of the show I’ve seen on stage, and for the most part, it’s an excellent rendition. It’s another strong production for the Muny’s historic 101st season.

Cast of 1776
Photo: The Muny

The Muny is presenting 1776 in Forest Park until July 3, 2019

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