by Brian Scott Lipton
Is it 1776 or 2016? It can be occasionally be hard to tell what year we’re watching—or living in—during Tony Award winner Garry Hynes’ supremely intelligent and entertaining revival of 1776, now being presented by City Center Encores! And it’s not just the modern dress costumes (by Terese Wadden) that lead to our confusion—it’s that Hynes’ direction of Peter Stone’s still prescient book subtly, yet clearly, points out the parallels between the warring Continental Congress in Philadelphia and our current legislature.
Still, skinny suits and red ties aside, this production shines as a sterling re-creation (historical inaccuracies and color-blind casting aside) of the struggles of the representatives of the original 13 colonies as they grappled with the question of American independence.
Chief among the proponents of this radical idea are future president John Adams (a remarkably forceful Santino Fontana), admittedly “obnoxious and disliked” but keenly determined to persuade any and all doubters; practical Pennsylvania sage Benjamin Franklin (a very funny, dryly wry John Larroquette); and, eventually, Virginia farmer Thomas Jefferson (a nicely low-key, movie star-handsome John Behlmann), whose “Declaration of Independence” helps seal the deal.
Leading the other side are pompous Pennsylvania landowner John Dickinson (a superb Bryce Pinkham, who gives the character a little dose of Donald Trump, especially in the chilling “Cool Cool Considerate Men”) and South Carolina’s Edward Rutledge (the almost scary Alexander Gemignani, who stops the show with a near-operatic rendition of “Molasses to Rum”).
Admittedly, 1776 is more a play with music, than a traditional musical, with a mere dozen songs by Sherman Edwards scattered throughout its nearly three hours. And only a few of them even stick in your head. Still, it’s a pleasure to hear the gorgeous sopranos of Christiane Noll as the strong-willed, earthy, Abigail Adams join Fontana on the sweet “Yours, Yours, Yours” and the wonderful Nikki Renee Daniels as the coquettish Martha Jefferson on the glorious “He Plays the Violin.” And one won’t soon forget John Michael Lyles as the camouflage-clad courier singing about the realities of war in the haunting “Mama, Look Sharp.”
The entire production benefits from a surplus of keen casting, which includes such invaluable supporting players as Michael McCormick (John Hancock), Andre De Shields (Stephen Hopkins), Jubilant Sykes (Richard Henry Lee), Robert Sella (Charlie Thomson) and Macintyre Dixon (Andrew McNair). And one can’t underestimate the excellent playing of the large orchestra (here conducted by guest music director Ben Whiteley).
Yet, as strong an experience as 1776 is, one non-theatrical question lingered with me on my way home from City Center. Will 2016 turn out as well?
1776. Through April 3 at New York City Center (151 West 55th Street, between Sixth and Seventh Avenues). nycitycenter.org
Photos by Joan Marcus