The Difficult Birth of a Nation

By Geary Danihy

You know a musical production works when, at the end of a number, you have to restrain yourself from shouting “Encore.” Such restraint was necessary several times while watching “1776,” Connecticut Repertory Theatre’s first offering in its 2017 Nutmeg Summer Series. Quite simply, this is entrancing, engaging and incisive theater in a production that is close to flawless.

Directed by Terrence Mann, who recently took over the reins as artistic director for the Nutmeg Series, this depiction of the goings on at the Continental Congress in Philadelphia, as the delegates bicker, snipe and debate and America’s possible independence from the mother country hangs in the balance, is not only highly entertaining but thoroughly engrossing.

On a multi-tiered set by scenic designer Tim Brown, the superb cast re-enacts the momentous events of late June and early July, 1776. The delegates from the thirteen colonies are at odds over just about everything, from the monumental to the trivial, including independence from England, a move pushed for with a zeal that borders on fanaticism by John Adams (Jamie LaVerdiere). Benjamin Franklin (Richard R. Henry) acts as a moderating force trying to cool tempers and urging compromise.

A contingent of representatives, led by the acerbic John Dickinson (Adam Harrington) of Pennsylvania and the effete South Carolinian Edward Rutledge (Noah Kieserman) cautions against independence, arguing that George Washington and his rag-tag army will surely be defeated by the superior British forces. In an attempt to forestall a vote on a proposal for independence that will surely not pass, Adams and Franklin suggest that a written declaration is needed that will set out exactly why the colonies are seeking their independence. The task falls to the reluctant Thomas Jefferson (Will Bryant), who pines for his wife Martha (Paige Smith) back in Virginia.

It’s the stuff of history, but is it grist for a musical? Definitely, yes. With a book by Peter Stone and music and lyrics by Sherman Edwards, this Tony award-winner captures the flavor and passion of the times while avoiding hagiographic solemnity. In other words, those participating in the Continental Congress are shown to be flawed human beings struggling to create a new nation.

So, what might urge an audience member to shout “Encore”? Well, the list is rather lengthy, led by LaVerdiere’s performance as Adams. It is so solid that you never doubt for a moment that John Adams is up there on the stage, for LaVerdiere captures Adams’ captious, off-putting personality as well as his passion for independence and frustration with the do-nothing nature of the Congress. It is a seamless, bravura performance that truly deserved the standing ovation it received.

The “Encore” list goes on and consists of just about every musical number, many choreographed by Christopher d’Amboise and superbly lit by Michael Chybowski. From the opening number, “Sit Down, John,” you know that you are set for an enjoyable evening, for it admirably and succinctly sets up the basic conflict that will drive the evening. Then there’s the almost vaudevillian “The Lees of Old Virginia,” in which Richard Henry Lee (Simon Longnight) proclaims the glory of his family name and gets Adams and Franklin, “unwilling-lee,” to march to his tune. The first act closes with the lilting, endearing “He Plays the Violin,” in which Martha explains to Adams and Franklin why she is so enamored of Mr. Jefferson.

The second act opens with a wonderfully staged and choreographed “Cool, Cool, Considerate Men,” which just as easily could be called the “Ever to the Right Military Minuet.” With Adams away, those in opposition to independence, led by Dickinson, revel in their conservatism. It’s a song that could well serve as the anthem for several current political factions.

Finally, there’s “Molasses to Rum,” a number that might be used in a class on American musical theater to illustrate how a song can not only be integral to the plot but also enjoyable in and of itself. The issue is slavery as addressed in the draft of the Declaration of Independence, and it ignites a confrontation between Adams and Rutledge. Adams takes the moral high ground, castigating the southern colonies, specifically South Carolina, for its “peculiar institution.” As Rutledge, Kieserman answers with this energetic, acerbic musical number that points out the hypocrisy of the northern colonies, specifically Massachusetts, that earn money from the transport of slaves.

There’s not a false note in the entire proceedings, including the revelation of Adams’ more human side in his letters to his wife Abigail (Gaelen Gilliland) in “Yours, Yours, Yours” and “Compliments.” The beauty of this production is that while you are enjoying the musical numbers you are also drawn by the drama of what is occurring in the chamber where the Congress is meeting. As Mann writes in the program notes: “Even though we know how the play ends, it is one of those theatrical experiences that keeps you on the edge of your seat.” It is also a theatrical experience that bodes well for Mann’s tenure as artistic director of the Nutmeg Summer Series.

“1776” runs through June 10. For tickets or more information call 860-486-2113 or go to www.crt.uconn.edu.