Reviewed by George Basler
The musical 1776 originally opened on Broadway in the midst of the Vietnam War and the hippie era exemplified by Hair, which was running just down the block. The timing meant the show got labeled as a square peg in the round hole of a turbulent era.
But while other artifacts of the era — such as love beads, Nehru jackets and even Hair itself — now seem comically dated, 1776 retains its freshness and relevancy.
S.R.O Productions III’s crisp, well-acted production, which opened Jan. 27 at the Schorr Family Firehouse Stage in Johnson City, shows why. The large, 26-member cast melds together perfectly to bring to life a musical that is both a history lesson and first-rate entertainment.
Why the show is so successful is something of a puzzle. The structure is certainly unconventional. There is no dancing to speak of, and the first act includes a half-hour stretch without a single song as members of the Continental Congress angrily debate the question of whether to declare independence from Great Britain.
None of the songs by Sherman Edwards have become enduring standards, and some of his lyrics are painfully clunky. The best song, the poignant ballad “Mama Look Sharp,” is practically shoehorned into the show. A minor character shows up to sing it but is barely present the rest of the musical.
Somehow, however, the show works. A large amount of the credit goes to Peter Stone’s book, which some have called one of the finest in musical theater history.
Stone skillfully mixes dramatic conflict and humor — jibes about the do-nothing Congress are sure-fire laugh getters — into what could have been a dry history lesson.
The characters in 1776 are not demigods but flesh and blood human beings who bicker among themselves and complain noisily about the flies and heat of summertime in Philadelphia.
Moreover, Stone does not shy away from some of the darker aspects of America’s founding. The action in Act II centers on the debate about removing a passage condemning slavery from the Declaration of Independence. When the framers strike the passage to placate the South, it’s a tough moment.
In the end, though, Stone clearly admires the signers of the Declaration who literally put their lives on the line in taking their revolutionary action. The finale as each man signs the document packs real emotional power.
The S.R.O cast, directed by Scott Fisher with assistance by Megan Germond, gives the audience a balanced and seamless production. The singing voices are strong in both ensemble numbers and solos. Despite the nearly three-hour running time, the action rarely drags.
Mickey Woyshner gives a strong performance as John Adams, the show’s main character.
On one hand, Adams is an intense, driven man whose tartness wins no popularity contests among his fellow representatives. The actor plays this well but also humanizes the character in scenes with his wife. Woyshner and Maureen Dancesia, as Abigail Adams, provide a real sweetness and warmth in their back-and-forth bantering, which is largely taken from real-life correspondence.
Rick Mertens is equally fine as Benjamin Franklin, who works with Adams to push independence. Mertens drew plenty of laughs in conveying the character’s slyness and impishness. He gets many of the play’s funniest lines and makes the most of the showy role.
Josh Smith is also humorous as the pompous and somewhat dimwitted Richard Henry Lee, who nonetheless plays a key role in pushing independence.
As John Dickinson, Chris Nickerson has the job of playing the least sympathetic character because he argues against independence. Nickerson successfully avoids making the character the villain by clearly presenting his principled objections. He keeps Dickinson sympathetic even as his arguments put him on the wrong side of history.
Joe Hoffman is solid as Thomas Jefferson, and Joe Brainard is extremely strong as Edward Rutledge, the South Carolina representative. While Brainard’s Southern accent is a bit sketchy, his rendition of “Molasses to Rum” in the second act is a powerful one that comes close to stopping the show.
A special salute goes to Chris DaCosta who performs “Mamma Look Sharp.” His performance is compelling and closes Act One on an emotional high note.
Credit goes to the technical crew, led by Joe Roma. While sound problems have plagued some other shows I’ve seen at the Schorr, the sound mix in 1776 is near perfect.
The show also benefits from being performed with a live, five-piece orchestra that never overwhelms the actors, who perform without body microphones, a refreshing change of pace from many shows.
1776 is a worthwhile effort from start to finish.
IF YOU GO: Performances are 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday (Feb. 3-4) and 2 p.m. Sunday (Feb. 5) at the Schorr Family Firehouse Stage, 46-48 Willow St., Johnson City. Tickets are $22 ($20 for seniors and students) and can be purchased at www.sroproductionsonline.com or by calling 800-838-3006.