It takes a special kind of nerd to appreciate the joy that is 1776. One must be equal parts musical-theater geek, history buff and lover of all things patently silly. If you’re the type that gets a kick out of seeing the Founding Fathers dancing around in funny wigs and singing whimsical songs about the Declaration of Independence, 1776 is a great pleasure.
Presented by Landmark Musicals under the direction of Shepard Sobel, the story centers around John Adams, a passionate, tireless man hell-bent on forging independence for the colonies. But, as Ben Franklin tells him, “Nobody listens to you. You’re obnoxious and disliked.” As the show opens, it’s late-June of the titular year in a scorching-hot Philadelphia. To the frustration of Mr. Adams, discussion on the issue of independence has come to a standstill. Congress is sharply divided. Some members are opposed to the proposition, and many of those who favor it won’t support the measure, fearing the consequences should America’s ragtag band of soldiers be defeated.
“I say vote yes!” Adams cries in the opening number, “Vote yes for independency!”
The Congressional chorus replies: “John, you’re a bore, we’ve all heard it before, now for God’s sake, John, sit down.” Still, Adams is unfazed, and he finally manages to bring the question to a debate. The move toward independence begins in earnest.
John Adams is a gale-force of a character intended to carry the production. He’s at once noble, tenacious and deeply annoying. Here, Adams is played by Shawn Wayne King—a talented performer who’s easy to watch for three hours. Wayne King does a commendable job, but for such a vital, complicated role, his performance lacks some power.
This is partly because 1776 creaks to a shaky start, like a massive steam-liner leaving port. The first scenes in the Continental Congress are dense and unwieldy, filled with a cacophony of voices and political ideas. It's understandably difficult territory to maneuver. But behind the debate are men on the verge of making a massive, dangerous, history-changing decision—and struggling mightily with it. The sense of these high stakes gets lost in the cumbersome dialogue.
The performance I saw was during opening weekend, so perhaps this was just an issue of 1776 finding its legs. Still, it felt as though a good 20 minutes could have been cut if the pace were simply picked up.
The energy blossoms and the actors find fun around the number “But Mr. Adams,” one of the highlights of the show. The Founding Fathers bop gleefully up and down like a cartoon oompah band as they decide who should write the Declaration of Independence. The number is followed by the even livelier “He Plays the Violin,” a clever, bawdy song wherein Martha Jefferson riffs on her husband Tom’s talents as a lover.
Once the production finds the joy and humanity of the pivotal historic event, it never lets it go. The conversations Adams imagines between him and his faraway wife, Abigail, played expertly by Kate Sarff, are poignant. A commanding performance by Hal Simons as John Dickinson—the voice of opposition from Pennsylvania—finally gives the debates in Congress the necessary dramatic tension. Michael Finnegan’s Ben Franklin adds heart and humor to the production. And David Aubrey sings beautifully as Thomas Jefferson, capturing well his bookish, lover-not-fighter temperament.
The set and costume designs, by Vic Browder and Joe Moncada (respectively), are smart, simple and everything you’d hope for—funny wigs included.
Despite its silliness, 1776 manages to inspire: These men put aside their differences and risked everything to do something that had never been done before. It's a testament to how much a determined people can accomplish. The message is meaningful, especially in an age when impotent partisan bickering feels like an endless and all-consuming staple of our political system.
This Fourth of July weekend, skip the fireworks. If you want to appreciate independence, watch it declared it all over again at the Rodey Theatre.