The incomparable and indomitable Terrence Mann has returned to Connecticut Repertory Theatre, this time as both artistic director of its Nutmeg Summer Series and director of the first show of the series, “1776,” and it is the best show that I have ever seen at Connecticut Rep.
Mann’s use of artistic inspiration, framing, and character direction fleshes out a show that runs the risk of being passé when there is a much more contemporary musical about the Founding Fathers currently running on Broadway.
At this point, “1776” may not be as revolutionary as “Hamilton,” but the story still has an overwhelming sense of urgency with today’s politics.
The show, with music and lyrics by Sherman Edwards and book by Peter Stone, is a candid look at the Second Continental Congress as John Adams (Jamie LaVerdiere) doggedly urges Congress to declare independence from the British Empire.
The Revolutionary War is not going well and letters to Congress from Gen. George Washington are not encouraging. Some representatives are siding with Adams, and others are reticent to change their allegiance to the British, who may continue to remain in rule.
What Mann achieves here is letting the material play honestly and let the story remind us that after 241 years, we haven’t changed much. We still have two groups of politicians with opposing world views, who still bicker and argue, believing one is right and the other is not.
His staging and blocking of the show creates depth and dimension, maintaining visibility to all the characters in a sometimes crowded stage; and it is no mistake that when the final vote is cast for the declaration that it ends front and center.
The cast are all wonderful, with LaVerdiere leading the way. A common rule of acting is if you want to know how to portray your character, see how the other characters talk about you. Adams is described as shrill, pompous, and obnoxious, and LaVerdiere does not shy away from those descriptors. His commitment to all facets of Adams brings a character of strength and dedication to the cause, but also an arrogance and inability to reason with differing points of view.
Richard R. Henry brings a splendid touch of light-heartedness to his portrayal of Benjamin Franklin, as he can in one moment passionately support Adams and the next crack a joke about his own philandering.
John Dickinson would be an easy role to cheat into a right wing stereotype, but Adam Harrington gives Dickinson a voice that has reason behind his pointed, yet flawed, position.
People should see “1776” not only because it is a well-crafted production, but because it is also a reminder that the United States of America was created by people who fundamentally didn’t agree with each other, but envisioned a world where people who think and believe differently can ultimately work toward something better.