Goodspeed Musicals, East Haddam
What a joyous experience is in store for Goodspeed audiences! Rob Ruggiero directs a rousing production of the beloved “1776”! Here is history which goes down like a spoonful of sugar. Never mind that writers Peter Stone (book) and Sherman Edwards (concept, music and lyrics) have taken liberty with the facts. It’s all in the service of art and entertainment, as well as history.
Essentially “1776” is the story of our founding fathers, of how the nation came into being. The scene is the Congressional Congress in Philadelphia, May to July 1776. Events lead to the signing of the Declaration of Independence, with imagined love scenes, insults, battles, struggles thrown in for good measure. Stone has endowed the Congress with a gaggle of colorful characters, enhanced by Edwards’ witty lyrics (rhyming “predicate” with “Connecticut,” for example) and appealing tunes.
Central to the action is the contentious John Adams (played by Peter A. Carey), who is determined to force the colony’s break from England and to declare an independent nation. Joining him are the wise and witty Ben Franklin (Ronn Carroll), who sums it up by saying, “We have spawned a new race here,” and the high-minded Thomas Jefferson (Edward Watts), who nonetheless yearns for his new bride. From head-on collisions to subtle manipulation, they battle stubborn delegates from Pennsylvania (Jay Goede), and South Carolina (Glenn Seven Allen).
The show opens with a freeze frame of a famed painting of the signers—a moment etched in all our memories. (Alejo Vietti’s costumes and Michael Schweikardt’s set are letter-perfect.) But a minute later, the figures come to life and the action begins. Ruggiero does a remarkable job in maneuvering his sizeable cast across the pocket stage and keeping those movements believable.
It is doubtful that that time in history was ever so dramatic, from moment to moment. The writers and directors have heightened “1776” with a chart on the wall that records the change of votes from “nay” to “yea.” Even though we all know the outcome, we follow the chart as avidly as fans at a World Series game.
The ultimate triumph comes with a sad compromise. Jefferson must pull all condemnation of slavery from his document, or South Carolina (and his followers in North Carolina and Georgia) will not sign.
Though Ruggiero gets good performances from his gifted cast, several tend to go over the top. Should Richard White (as Richard Henry Lee of the Lees of Virginia) be so clownish, or Teal Wicks (as Jefferson’s wife Martha) so fluttery? And Carey would do well to tone down his angry shouts. Yet his scenes with wife Abigail (Rebecca Watson) are warm and tender, thanks to both performers.
But why quibble. Here is a very satisfying production of an endearing musical, enhanced, as always, by drinks on the terrace and the Connecticut River view!
-- -Irene Backalenick
November 1, 2007