SARASOTA — A musical about the Declaration of Independence? With a virtually all-male cast? Was that the worst idea ever for a musical?
Or so I always thought. Now I have to say: Where has 1776 been all my life? I had never seen the musical, which premiered on Broadway in 1969 and won the Tony Award for best musical, until I went to the Asolo Repertory Theatre's splendid production Tuesday night, and it bowled me over.
Right from the start, this show by history-teacher-turned-songwriter Sherman Edwards (music and lyrics) and Peter Stone (book) is loaded with unexpected wit and charm in the rousing men's chorus Sit Down, John. It features Bernie Yvon in a terrific portrayal of the "obnoxious and disliked" John Adams, arguing with fellow members of the Second Continental Congress in sweltering Philadelphia.
Adams, Benjamin Franklin (Andrew Boyer) and Thomas Jefferson (Brandon Dahlquist) are the Founding Fathers with the most to do, as exemplified by their hilarious trio, The Egg, on what the national bird should be — the dove, turkey or eagle? But each delegate gets a telling little turn, such as Richard Henry Lee (Jay Lusteck) in The Lees of Old Virginia, or the tipsy Stephen Hopkins (Joe D. Lauck) of Rhode Island. As secretary Charles Thomson, Jim Sorensen keeps the congress posted on military matters, reading pessimistic dispatches from "Your obedient, G. Washington."
1776 has uncanny relevance to current events, with its depiction of politicians making compromises to reach a common good. Cool, Cool, Considerate Men, a minuet led by Pennsylvania's John Dickinson (Jeff Parker), could be the Tea Party anthem: "To the right, ever to the right / Never to the left, forever to the right."
As youthful, aristocratic Edward Rutledge, the delegate from South Carolina, Jarrod Zimmerman delivers the remarkable Molasses to Rum, a dark tour de force on Northern complicity in the South's "peculiar institution," slavery. In pained response, Adams moves to drop the clause that calls for freeing the slaves, singing the doleful Is Anybody There?
The only women in the 26-actor cast are Abby Mueller, playing the muse of Massachusetts, Abigail Adams, and Andrea Prestinario, who makes a single appearance as Martha Jefferson to sing a ravishing aria in praise of her husband, He Plays the Violin.
The production was smartly directed by Frank Galati, whose creative team is highlighted by Russell Metheny's handsome wood set and sumptuous period costumes by Mara Blumenfeld. Music director and pianist Michael Rice is the sole visible musician as he conducts the small orchestra that plays from underneath the stage.
1776 reminded me a lot of The Music Man. Both are pure Americana, of course, but they also have a combination of humanity and intelligence — thanks to near perfect books by Stone and Meredith Willson — that is rare in musical comedy.
To mark World AIDS Day on Saturday, there is a performance that night at 7:30 at Freefall Theatre in St. Petersburg of Keith Haring: Radiant Child. Chris Rutherford stars in the late Jeff Norton's one-man play about the artist known for his drawings of barking dogs, flying saucers and "radiating" babies. Haring died of AIDS at 32 in 1990. Presented by the Suncoast AIDS Theatre Project and directed by Kerry Glamsch, the performance benefits HIV/AIDS programs of Metropolitan Charities of Pinellas. $10. (727) 498-5205; freefalltheatre.com.
John Fleming can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8716.