Talkin’ Broadway: 1776

Originally published on Talkin’ Broadway.
Peter A. Carey and
Eileen Nugent in 1776If the success of 1776 is the treatment of our nation’s heroes as nuanced human beings, then Spiro Veloudos’s season-opening production at the Lyric Stage might be the most successful staging of the show yet. In the Lyric’s intimate house, the audience becomes members of the Second Continental Congress, and the arguments of the colonies become present and relevant. Plus, the small theater allows for unamplified singing, a particular treat when there’s a 20+ voice male chorus involved.

At the center of the show stands John Adams (Peter A. Carey), whose desperate belief in the necessity of independence often overwhelms his knowledge of the workings of diplomacy. Adams is one of the greatest roles in modern theatre, requiring an actor to be at once lovable and “obnoxious and disliked,” carrying much of the show on his shoulders. Carey is utterly engrossing in the part, so believable that at times one almost expects him to collapse from the exhaustion of creating the United States single-handedly.

Of course, this is far from a single-handed job, and he is happily accompanied by a superb acting ensemble. While certainly there are standouts, the entire ensemble is filled with actors who bring to life every delegate, even those who barely speak. Brent Reno, as Lewis Morris of New York, conveys volumes with a pointed look, and John Davin as Delaware’s Caesar Rodney is downright inspirational when he returns to the congress despite impending death from cancer in order to participate in the final vote. Among the more featured delegates are the standouts J. T. Turner as an affable Ben Franklin, and Frank Gayton who brings credibility to Pennsylvania’s John Dickinson, humanizing a character that could easily be played as a one-dimensional villain.

The show isn’t entirely made up of men, and unfortunately, if there’s a weak point in this production, it is the women. While both Eileen Nugent as Abigail Adams and Jennifer Ellis as Martha Jefferson are pleasant singers, they do not bring enough presence to their roles to fully inhabit these women or compensate for the relative brevity of their appearances.

Musically, the show is top notch, with a tight seven-piece orchestra under the capable baton of Jonathan Goldberg sounding much fuller than its numbers might suggest. Janie E. Howland’s set manages to squeeze nearly two dozen delegates onto the tiny stage without ever feeling cramped, and Scott Clive’s lighting is invaluable in focusing the action on such a full stage.

I last saw 1776 nearly a decade ago at the Gershwin Theatre on Broadway. The stage was huge, the country optimistic, and despite the human foibles of the characters, the show still felt like a celebration of our foundational myths. Today, seeing the show in Boston during election season, while our country and many others throughout the world are at war, 1776 feels much more like a wake-up call. This production reminds us that great men are regular guys, and regular guys can be great men. If only we didn’t need the reminder so often.