Saturday, February 2, 2013

Theatre review: "1776" at Pittsburgh Public Theater

Playwright Peter Stone and composer/lyricist Sherman Edwards got it right in calling their Broadway show 1776 “a musical play.” Stone’s script carries the day. That becomes abundantly clear in the present, impressive production at Pittsburgh Public Theater thanks to superlative acting and insightful, dynamic direction by Ted Pappas.

The book and the dialogue offer so much that you might wonder why this winner of three Tony Awards including Best Musical has to have songs, especially since most of them sound more utilitarian than original. But, back in 1969 when it opened, that might have been a hard sell to get audiences to buy tickets for just a play,with such a subject as our nation’s birth, the conception of which emerged in The Declaration of Independence, with that document at the heart of it all.

The Vietnam War continued to burn for six more years while dissension and disunity tore at the guts of U.S. citizens. Some of us shredded flags to protest the tragic waste of
our young countrymen's lives. Faith in our nation was being sorely tested. And the riots at Chicago’s Democratic Party national convention seven months before still seared our collective memory.

And yet, what could be a more appropriate time to remind us of the agonies, the perils, the need for compromise and reconciliation which challenged our forefathers bringing forth a nation conceived in liberty in midst of war? How to do that without sounding like a lecture or just another respectful, yet un-nuanced documentary? Answer: make it resemble entertainment. Liven it up, freshen it with music, songs, laughter.

It worked. This musical play ran for nearly three years.

So, never mind that nearly all of Sherman Edwards’ 13 songs have undistinguished music and clumsy lyrics. Stone’s re-telling of the history lesson comes filled with distinct, memorable characters even when sketched-in simply. His dialogue crackles with provocative intelligence and, from time to time, charming humor. Stone makes those men from the colonies come alive on stage. And the cast enriches what’s there, even when briefly defined, shaded and colored by Pappas’ inventive perception. 

There are times, though, when it looks as if everyone is trying a little too hard to make the songs work, becoming more obvious than subtle and sincere. For example, in the memorable “Molasses to Rum,” a stunning peroration by South Carolina Congress delegate Edward Rutledge, he reminds his colleagues that they all profit from slavery. In Hayden Tee’s interpretation, he takes over the entire stage as if Rutledge owns it. No doubt Tee and Pappas were prompted by the brilliance of Sherman Edwards’ best contribution to the score, but it doesn’t need such pushing. And Tee’s magnificent singing becomes an object of wonder rather than an integrated element in the whole concept. Meanwhile, this personification of Rutledge looks like an arch and shallow contrast to Tee's appealing solidity as King Arthur in The Public’s 2011 production of Lerner and Loewe’s Camelot.

Contrast that with the only other truly special song, “Mamma Look Sharp” sung by a ragged courier from Washington’s army which is falling apart in fields not far away. Pappas and actor Eric Meyers, give it moving sorrow in solitary shadows. Pappas staging here, as elsewhere, creates superb, evocative tableaux.

Pappas has also made the final scene, despite its predictability, another moment to call forth tears, choosing simplicity over obviousness.

More than half of the 26 member cast consists of artists from Pittsburgh although only one of them has a principal role. He is Darren Eliker, with depth and definition as Pennsylvania’ s John Dickenson, the only delegate clearly opposed to the Colonies secession from the Empire. Others becoming solidly specific amid the wonderful sense of ensemble include John Allen Biles, Jeffrey Carpenter, Jeremy Czarniak, Jarrod DiGiorgi, James Fitzgerald, Tim Hartman, Daniel Krell, Jason McCune, Larry John Meyers and Scott P. Sambuco.

The other principal characters with the most emphasis are John Adams, Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson. Steve Vinovich gives Franklin genuine warmth and a fine sense of intelligence and integrity. And Keith Hines (seen before as Lancelot in the Public’s Camelot) makes Jefferson sweetly appealing. John Adams is the most difficult role. Historically he’s been often defined as aggressively earnest and not easily likable. Stone and Sherman do what they can to lighten him up but visiting actor George Merrick hasn't found a way to get behind the surface.

Martha Bromelmeier created great costumes and F. Wade Russo’s expertly directs the not-visible seven member, 12 instrument orchestra. He didn’t get a curtain call on February 1st and should have.

Who would guess that attending a tale we think we know could become an experience to cherish and admire? And it reminds us to equally admire and cherish those real people who gave us our dynamic heritage.

1776 continues through February 24th at Pittsburgh Public Theater at the O'Reilly Theater, downtown. 412/ 316-1600 or

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