by Richard Dodds
Does it matter that history has happened since the debut of 1776 on Broadway in 1969 – even if the events of the musical are deeply rooted in American lore? Of course it does, but a nation's ongoing tribulations only deepen the arguments being held in a "foul, fetid, filthy, fuming Philadelphia" in the summer when the Declaration of Independence was being written, debated, and adopted.
A sturdy, faithful rendering of the original Broadway vision for 1776 has opened ACT's new season with tempered flag-waving. At least some of that temperance was intended by songwriter Sherman Edwards and librettist Peter Stone, specifically as the northern colonies fold over the issue of slavery, and in the overall unsightliness of laws and sausages being made.
But in the passing years, the country birthed that summer has been involved in a series of dispiriting wars, seen one president resign and another impeached, has adopted the hideously titled Patriot Act, watched as the private guardians of our economy nearly destroyed it, and lately been witness to revelations that our government is monitoring everything from a tweet between neighbors to conversations in presidential offices around the globe.
All of the above was brought to mind (this mind at least) as the heated discussions among members of the Second Continental Congress promote and question the wisdom of breaking off the 13 American colonies from the erratic economic dictums of the British monarchy. This is not obviously the stuff of a rah-rah Broadway musical, but its creators often do a surprisingly effective job of combining boulevard comedy, song and dance, and deadly serious negotiations.
Estimable director Frank Galati, a stalwart of Chicago's vibrant theater scene and a Tony winner for his adaptation of The Grapes of Wrath, has approached the curious concoction of 1776 with a reverent yet light-handed touch. An earlier incarnation of this production was presented at Sarasota's Asolo Theatre last year, with sets, costumes, lighting design, and some of the actors continuing in their roles. It's not possible to identify the newcomers from the veterans as each of the congressional delegates has a specific identity as the fierce conflicts of conscience and personality between key delegates is made palpable, and Benjamin Franklin is just as cantankerously lovable as we always thought he was.
But 1776 belongs to John Adams, delegate from Massachusetts and future president, who, we are reminded repeatedly, is obnoxious and disliked, but remains the battering ram that ultimately corrals a unanimous vote for independence. John Hickok, new to the cast for the ACT production, fully inhabits the character, and his energies help drive the show forward even when it forgets it's a musical and settles into filiblustery talk.
As noted, Benjamin Franklin, or this Benjamin Franklin at least, has the right stuff for musical comedy that Andrew Boyer adroitly exploits. There are more straight-ahead musical comedy moments provided by the prancing Ryan Drummond as Virginia's Richard Henry Lee and the libidinously trilling Andrea Prestinario as Martha Jefferson. And while Jarrod Zimmerman passionately, and almost sadistically, delivers South Carolina delegate Edward Rutledge's dirge-like argument for slavery, the message seems a muddle.
It is interesting to note that if the northern colonies had not agreed to delete mention of slavery in the Declaration of Independence, the colonies would likely have remained part of Great Britain, making them subject to Parliament's Slavery Abolition Act of 1833 – 30 years ahead of the Emancipation Proclamation. History doesn't give us do-overs, but what-ifs can't be thwarted, and 1776 is a great what-if enabler.
1776 will run at ACT through Oct. 6. Tickets are $25-$150. Call 749-2228 or go to act-sf.org.