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Theatre Review (LA): 1776 by Peter Stone and Sherman Edwards at Musical Theatre West

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1776 is a unique musical in that it pulls at the heartstrings and makes you proud you are American. Parts of it are a bit silly, as when Benjamin Franklin sings about making the turkey the national bird, but it is based on fact. The show is getting a glorious production at Musical Theatre West in Long Beach. What is even more exciting for the audience there is that they seem not to know the musical (it was never produced here before) so they were all the more involved in the plot line, script and songs.

The result was an evening of discovery for the audience. The new ones loved seeing a positive story about the founding of our country which gave some perspective on the logjam that is now part of state as well as national politics. It gives the audience hope that eventually the waters will flow again and something good will come of it. The piece does warn however that compromise, such as the Founding Fathers had to make with the South regarding slavery, can have repercussions for years to come. Southern Republicans, like the Dixiecrats of old, are still a problem for many progressive reforms proposed in Congress.

I have always loved this musical because it never fails to charm and to move. I also love it because it gives one a reason to feel good about America. Of course a lousy cast and bad direction can bring the whole experience to a grinding halt. I think this production in Long Beach is the most satisfying I have seen of the musical since it opened. This is largely due to the wonderful direction of Nick DeGruccio, who makes sure the show moves, though it is about a logjam. He makes sure that the show has a heart and lots of humor.

He has also assembled a cast that can’t be matched in terms of voices, including Tami Tappan as Abigail Adams and, one of my favorites, John Bisom as Thomas Jefferson. Davis Gaines is Richard Henry Lee and it is a great pleasure to hear his beautiful voice again (which I hadn’t since he played the Phantom in Los Angeles). Steve Vinovich makes a fun Franklin and Andy Umburger is spectacular as Dickinson. Robert J. Townsend is a strong presence as Edward Rutledge, and he brings down the house with the powerful “Molasses to Rum to Slaves.” Tom Shelton is a strong John Hancock, Todd Neilson does a nice turn as Charles Thomson, Richard Gould makes a fine Stephen Hopkins, and Damon Kirshe, in unexpected casting, makes a welcome addition as Dr. Lymon Hall from Georgia. Robert Towers is the perfect custodian.

The performance that holds it all together is Steven Glaudini as John Adams. He made the role his own and was a perfect foil for all the obstructionists. It was also a daring performance in that there is always a risk when an Artistic Director (he holds that position with Musical Theatre West) takes a leading role—always the danger that the audience will think they have been cheated. But not here, for they embraced his performance and the theatre will be all the stronger for it. 1776 runs through July 25th at Musical Theatre West in the beautiful Carpenter Center.

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About Robert Machray

  • Wish I could see this! Watched the movie version this past July 4. Hard to imagine anyone topping William Daniels as John Adams.