Poor John Adams. Obnoxious and disliked, the lawyer from Massachusetts who prodded Thomas Jefferson to compose the Declaration of Independence just couldn't get along with the other founding fathers. But irritating as he may have been, he was an American hero just the same. So Sherman Edwards and Peter Stone wrote an intermittently charming musical called 1776! that takes the limelight off of Jefferson and shines it squarely on Adams. The Bluebird Productions version of the spirited musical has its charms, too--and might have had many more had it been subjected to a good stiff trim.
The show really begins before curtain. Upon arrival at the New Denver Civic Theatre, viewers are announced by a colonial butler at the door, along with a good many distinguished gentlemen, representatives of the thirteen colonies. Rubbing elbows with Jefferson, Franklin and John Hancock might have been a bit torturous if the actors had been at all self-conscious, but having mastered the art of the courtly schmooze, they interact gracefully with the audience.
The show opens with the rousing "Sit Down John," a full-company song in which the other reps lambaste Adams for his loud-mouthed, single-minded defense of independence. The story concerns the effort to talk sense into the Southerners who like King George and slavery and see no reason to ratify independence--even though the country is already at war and many of their necks will be in the noose should the Revolutionary army fail. Radicals such as John Adams stand with moderates like Jefferson and Franklin against conservatives like John Dickinson of Pennsylvania and Joseph Hewes of North Carolina.
The two duets between Adams and his absent wife, Abigail, are truly touching. In their "correspondence," he scolds, she scolds, and they both encourage. These moments offer us a glimpse of the wonderful Carla Kaiser as Abbie. A fine, strong voice and a gift for a variety of comic expressions contribute to her imaginative interpretation of the role, small as it is. The only other woman's role in the show is an even tinier one--that of Martha Jefferson, who visits Tom during his writing of the famous document that kicked the English aside for good. Pamela White has the thankless task of singing "He Plays the Violin," and her sweet voice is all but lost in the Civic cavern.
This is a guy's show. And one of the best things about it is how the strong male voices in the full-company routines so defy the dreadful acoustics of the Civic--they absolutely boom out. This is the first musical I've seen there that can (almost) hold its own against the vacuum of the auditorium.
Unfortunately, when the guys sing alone, they have less luck with the sound suckage. Mike Romero as Adams has a roaring good moment when he sings the last song of the evening, "Is Anybody There," but he's best when he faces the audience--we can barely hear him when he turns away. Worse yet on the sonic front is Joe Marshall's Jefferson. Marshall is a fine actor who gives an intriguing performance as a diffident Tom, but he can't sing to save himself, at least in this space.
Harry A. Cruzan makes a terrific Franklin. Ben is a lecherous old goat with political savvy, but Cruzan never lets the sly bird fly over the top. Most of the smaller roles are well-manned: Especially noteworthy are Vermont Smith as the crusty Dr. Lyman Hall, Bob Woolsey as the beleaguered John Hancock, Dave Atkinson as the utilitarian miscreant Edward Rutledge, and Rick Williams as the no-nonsense Charles Thomson. Director Gail Yemington has given most of the small details plenty of loving attention; she goes to some lengths to give us a feeling for the times, the strain of invention and the messy human business of making diplomacy work.
But in the end, the show is just too long. And despite the marvelous two-man-band accompaniment of Dave White and Trey Barker, the songs aren't interesting enough to sustain it. The founding of a nation may be a tediously slow business, but time has to fly in the theater.
1776!, through August 3 at the New Denver Civic Theatre, 721 Santa Fe Drive, 465-1957.
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