Hey, Hey, It's the Fourth of July

1776 winds up being more -- and less -- of a history lesson than audiences might expect. Sherman Edwards and Peter Stone's award-winning musical, which premiered on Broadway more than thirty years ago, is an enjoyable retelling of the events that led to the signing of the Declaration of Independence on July 4, 1776.

Or so legend has it. As the creators point out in their authors' notes, the fabled piece of parchment wasn't, as happens near play's end, signed by everyone on the great day. And contrary to the lengthy discussions that consume much of Act One, the document wasn't actually debated and approved until the Second Continental Congress had already taken the crucial vote for independence.

But Edwards and Stone's liberal blending of fact and fiction is precisely what permits this two-and-three-quarter-hour yarn to evoke patriotic sentiment and nostalgic feeling. Combined with an array of beautiful costumes (fashioned by Nikki Hoof), a well-appointed Georgian setting (designed by Stuart Barr) and several fine singing voices, the Town Hall Arts Center's robust effort makes for an entertaining, if somewhat breezy, evening.

Leading the company is Jonathan Pearl, whose feisty portrayal of John Adams frequently keeps the production from falling prey to the dreaded droning disease. An admitted burr in the breeches of his fellow congressmen, who prefer to "piddle and twiddle" instead of resolving to break free from England's tyranny, Pearl is an effective catalyst and likable underdog, especially during those few group numbers that articulate political wrangling ("For God's Sake, John, Sit Down"). Even though we know that the Massachusetts representative will eventually realize his dream of American independence, Pearl doggedly works his way through each twist and turn until, as perhaps occurred to Adams on that muggy, fly-infested day in Philadelphia, the rays of liberty finally break through the clouds of appeasement. And while he's overshadowed during his touching duets with wife Abigail, winningly portrayed by the silvery-voiced Sheryl Corbijn, the plucky baritone proves an appealing singer as well.

In addition to providing the drama with decent though sometimes static staging, director Christopher Willard shapes a number of fine portraits that are far from the oil-paint-and-gilded-frame variety. Greg Johnson puts his clear tenor to good use as Thomas Jefferson, the enigmatic Virginian whose writing skills and insight into human nature earned him the assignment of composing the declaration. As his comely wife, Martha, Whitney Flinn-Strah lends the proceedings some playful passion ("He Plays the Violin"). Sporting a marvelously crafted countenance of spectacles, bald pate and gray locks, Harry Cruzan turns in a thoroughly believable performance as Benjamin Franklin, carefully choosing his chances to sneak a few snoozes, as Franklin was reputed to have done. Kyle Johnson exudes repugnant charm as South Carolinian Edward Rutledge, who succeeds in his efforts to rid the declaration of any denigrating references to slavery ("Molasses to Rum"). Although Eric Fry's portrayal of the swaggering Richard Henry Lee could use more high-ham flair, his boisterous take is enjoyable enough ("The Lees of Old Virginia"). Joey Wishnia delights as the rum-swilling Rhode Island salt, Stephen Hopkins. Terry Lindeman amuses as Colonel Thomas McKean, a Scottish-accented militiaman whose fighting spirit contrasts sharply with the heady musings of his fellow lawmakers.

And Jeff Tarr shines in his solo number as a young recruit who has just witnessed the horrors of the Battle of Lexington. Bringing to the forefront the human suffering caused by war -- a scene that must have proved interesting to audiences in 1969 -- the fresh-faced lad calls for his mother to come to his side "before I do die." Underscoring the musical's pointed (though just as often comic) examination of the price of freedom, the moving episode prompts one to wonder whether the lessons of the past, however secure they seem in our collective consciousness, have ever been as ingeniously presented -- or adequately learned. -- Lillie

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Jim Lillie

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