Expect to be thoroughly entertained by an enthralling slice of American history set to music as 1776, the multiple Tony Award-winning musical about the events leading up to the signing of the Declaration of Independence, which recently opened at Northport’s John W. Engeman Theater.
The show spans the summer months of its title year. It’s uncomfortably hot in the fly-plagued Philadelphian Hall that is home to the Second Congressional Congress, and business is moving at a snail’s pace. John Adams, the Massachusetts delegate, is deeply frustrated because Congress has not moved forward on his proposal that the American colonies break free from British rule. In fact, a year has trickled through the hourglass, and Adams has earned the reputation of being obnoxious and disliked because of his persistence.
This was a rebellious act that no other British possession had ever dared contemplate. Yet life in the colonies had given rise to a new breed, less refined than the British perhaps, yet tantalizingly bold. Delegates teetered on the decision to brave “the sea in a skiff made of paper” for three sweltering months.
Eventually, when delegates do commit to a “yea” or “nay,” a deadlock emerges, with the South pitted against the North. To make matters more difficult, John Hancock, Congressional President, rules that the decision for or against independence must be unanimous, so “no colony be torn from its mother country without its own consent.”
Adams calls for a postponement and suggests that a document clarifying the reasons behind the break from Great Britain be drafted. Hence the Declaration of Independence would be written.
Jamie LaVerdiere, who boasts Broadway, national and international tour credits, previously appeared in Engeman’s The Cottage and Sweet Charity. He excels as Adams, the principled idealist and passionately annoying squeaky wheel who refuses to be silenced. Adams and his wife, Abigail, had a deep bond nurtured by written correspondence. Their responses to each other’s missives are depicted in the show. Jennifer Hope Wills, who has appeared on Broadway and regionally, does full justice to the role of Abigail. Their voices blend in sweet harmony in the songs, “Until Then,” and “Yours, Yours, Yours.”
Adams’ primary supporters in the fight for independence are Thomas Jefferson and Ben Franklin. In his Engeman debut, Michael Glavan is superb as the taciturn Jefferson, who possessed the written eloquence needed to compose the Declaration of Independence.
David Studwell endows Franklin with both wisdom and a keen comic flair, the latter of which is showcased in the clever repartee that takes place when Franklin and Adams run into Martha Jefferson. She has been sent for by Adams because Jefferson has been pining for his wife. When asked by Franklin how the inordinately quiet Jefferson managed to snare such a comely bride, Martha (Adriana Milbrath) responds with “He Plays the Violin,” a saucy song full of innuendos and double entendres. It makes for delightful levity.
At the end of Act I, a bedraggled courier (Matthew Rafanelli), who silently trudges into Congressional Hall bearing messages from George Washington, surprises the audience with a song, “Momma Look Sharp.” It is a poignant and heartbreaking reminder of the true cost of war and Rafanelli renders it to perfection.
South Carolina’s Edward Rutledge (Peter Saide) similarly delivers a wake-up call about the North’s hypocrisy with respect to slavery. “Molasses to Rum” is a stunningly dramatic number about the harsh realities of triangular trade.
The action really heats up in Act II and its songs like these two that kept me glued to my seat.
Expect to experience an engrossing behind-the-scenes look into the personalities who catapulted America into revolution. You might be reminded, as I was, of another spellbinding Engeman hit, 12 Angry Men, where there is similar deliberation. However, in 1776, the destiny of not just one man, but of an entire nation hangs in the balance. We identify with the characters’ moral and philosophical quandaries because the Founding Fathers are depicted, not as demigods, but as flawed and all too human.
The show is a deeply thought-provoking one. Given the present political climate, I felt wistful about the spirit of moral integrity that permeated Congressional Hall. Despite fundamental differences, in the final analysis, the delegates listened to others and were open to compromise, which was, at times, hard wrought.
Director Igor Goldin has been at the helm of many of Engeman’s finest productions, including Memphis, West Side Story, South Pacific, and, of course, 12 Angry Men. His astute direction and attention to detail is outstanding, making for ensemble work at its best. He once again delivers a theatrical masterpiece.
One of the first things that I noticed was the authentic period costumes, in keeping with the persona of each character. Major kudos to Kurt Alger for his costume and wig design, which delight the eyes. Compliments also to the five piece band led by Music Director Eric Alsford.
I would be remiss if I did not call attention to the playbill, which is something of a keepsake. It contains an image of the original Declaration with its signatures. There is a picture of each delegate, the actor that plays him, and fascinating details about the men who shaped history.
1776 runs through Nov. 6. Tickets can be purchased at the box office, by calling 631-261-2900 or visiting www.engemantheater.com