Great idea by Lyric Stage producer Steven Jones to open his revival of the grand old musical 1776 during campaign season. If only more of those pesky "undecided voters" could see it.
What they would witness first and foremost is another of Lyric's spectacular productions of a rarely done piece of American musical theater. As with Oklahoma! and The Most Happy Fella earlier this year, Lyric director Cheryl Denson has cast 1776 with extraordinarily good actor-singers. Brian Gonzales, now a veteran of two Broadway shows, is back in town to play the lead, the "agitator" John Adams. Bryant Martin co-stars as Thomas Jefferson, with David Coffee as Ben Franklin, Christopher Curtis as John Dickinson, Kyle Cotton as Edward Rutledge and James Williams as John Hancock. The 33-piece orchestra led by musical director Jay Dias includes piccolos, a harpsichord, a harp and eight violins — more instruments than any Broadway tour that hits the Winspear or Fair Park.
Besides its value as a sparkling evening of smart entertainment, however, this show also provides a cleverly laid out history lesson. Think Congress is a mess now? In Philadelphia in the summer of 1776, the representatives from the 13 original colonies were at each other's throats, not just about declaring independence from England, but whether rum should be served during sessions before 10 a.m. And who keeps opening the windows and letting in all those flies?
With Adams pounding away at his talking points, and 33-year-old Jefferson putting quill to parchment to lay out reasons for creating the United States of America, compromise is reached and a nation is born. Compromise. Remember when that was a good thing?
Book writer Peter Stone wove a lot of wit into his script for 1776, which premiered to great success on Broadway in 1969 and has been revived there only once. It is more verbose than most musicals; after a couple of boisterous opening numbers, there's a song-free 40-minute stretch that's all arguments among the Founding Fathers. But it's fast-paced, and actors Gonzales, Coffee, Curtis and Williams keep the energy popping like Fourth of July firecrackers.
The score by Sherman Edwards makes extravagant use of the 25 men's voices, together and in duets. (The two women's roles are Abigail Adams, played beautifully here by Amber Nicole Guest, and Martha Jefferson, sung with sexy spunk by Maranda Harrison.) The 100-minute first act closes with the most haunting solo, "Momma, Look Sharp," recounting the horrifying battlefield experiences of a young American soldier. SMU senior Max Swarner shows off his stunning tenor voice and considerable depth as an actor playing the nameless courier who sings this song, an anthem to heroes who die for decisions made by important men in rooms far away from war.