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Theater Review: Ford’s Theatre’s ‘1776’ is a Yankee doodle dandy

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Even those who can only stumble through “The Star-Spangled Banner” are bound to find plenty of tuneful enjoyment in Ford’s Theatre’s dandy new revival of “1776,” a musical that dares to suggest that Benjamin Franklin was not just an inventor, statesman and patriot, but also a darned fine song-and-dance man.

Christopher Bloch’s warm and witty Franklin is one of a number of savvy performances in this 1969 musical that, with infusions of skill and schmaltz, sets to hearty melodies the battles of Colonial nerves that resulted in one of history’s most eloquent documents, the Declaration of Independence. Directed with obvious affection by Peter Flynn, the production is calculated to stir the soul of every lover of the American story, without regard to which lever you pull on Election Day.

Yes, the Royalist faction at the Continental Congress in Philadelphia — led here by the potent Robert Cuccioli as a severe, gentrified delegate from Pennsylvania — is characterized as being priggishly “conservative.” But hey, the reps who lean to the right get to sing and minuet through one of the evening’s most stirring numbers, “Cool, Cool, Considerate Men.” It’s performed at Ford’s with considerable verve, courtesy of Cuccioli’s vibrant delivery and Michael Bobbitt’s crisp choreography.

Then again, the leader of the pro-Revolutionary members of the Congress and the evening’s central figure, John Adams, is anything but endearing. In Brooks Ashmanskas’s keenly persuasive portrayal, Adams is rendered as self-defeatingly strident, or, as composer-lyricist Sherman Edwards would have it, “obnoxious and disliked.” History may record slavery as the divisive issue that nearly derailed the Congress’s deliberations, but in a big, old-style Broadway musical, it doesn’t hurt to have a main character whose foibles can be easily exaggerated in song.

Edwards is more accomplished with musical notes than words, some of which feel downright tortured and lend the show an occasionally cartoonish overtone. (Obvious cracks about the do-nothing Congress — yuck, yuck — don’t help, and there’s something a little creepy in the extent of the running joke about the enforced celibacy of the delegates who left their wives at home.) Consider, too, the cheesy birth-of-the-eagle metaphor that Adams, Franklin and Thomas Jefferson (a dapper William Diggle) outline in “The Egg”: “We’re waiting for the chirp, chirp, chirp/Of an eaglet being born!”

Yet craftsmanship abounds elsewhere in the charming handiwork of Edwards and book writer Peter Stone. (One must, of course, banish from memory the mess Hollywood made of the musical in an egregiously wooden 1972 adaptation.) Faced with the task of assembling 20 squabbling men on the stage — plus assorted wives, couriers, clerks — the writers capture the delegates in remarkably entertaining capsules. On this evening, the awards for special achievement in small roles go to Richard Pelzman as a burly Scotsman from Delaware; Tom Story, playing Congress’s secretary; Buzz Mauro, as terminally ill Caesar Rodney, and Bobby Smith in a turn as a delegate who — in a theatrical heresy — craves nothing more than historical obscurity.

As the actors first gather on designer Tony Cisek’s handsomely realized set of the Assembly Room in Independence Hall to sing the vivacious opening number, “For God’s Sake, John, Sit Down!,” you may find yourself having to catch your breath. The fiscal constraints in developing musicals today permit few shows to feature songs for 20 distinct characters.

So feast on the tableau “1776” conjures, with a stage populated end to end with characters dressed in grand, Colonial Williamsburg fashion by Wade Laboissonniere, and bursting fairly regularly into harmony. Okay, there is a melodic dry spell during the long exposition-packed first act, when the idea of a formal statement of American purpose gradually gains momentum among the delegates; the musical lists only 13 numbers, one of them essentially a reprise. Still, the opportunities are rarely wasted when “1776” does sing, in part because the singing is so good.

Buttressed by Kim Scharnberg’s new orchestrations (for an eight-member orchestra) and the sterling work of sound designer David Budries, the voices rise commandingly to the occasion, and in finer manner than a 2003 version of the musical executed on the same stage. As Abigail Adams, Kate Fisher aurally channels Julie Andrews in “Till Then,’’ and, as effectively haloed by lighting designer Nancy Schertler, Sam Ludwig prompts the required chilling effect in “Momma, Look Sharp.”

Flynn reveals a talent for eliciting nimble portrayals. You can see how “1776” might tilt toward over-animated broadness. But here, Bloch’s Franklin, for instance, never slides into cuteness, nor does Ashmanskas’s Adams become a Broadway caricature of prickliness. These disciplined treatments reach a natural emotional climax at the evening’s end, when all these men of clashing styles and interests convene movingly for the defiant act that’s stored in the minds of American sixth-graders of all ages.

Oddly enough, on a night in which Ashmanskas, Bloch and Diggle were perched on the Ford’s stage, singing the line, “We say to hell with Great Britain!,” the White House was throwing a lavish dinner for Britain’s current prime minister. You’d like to think that with a production this expert, even he might be caught up in the revolutionary spirit.

1776

Music and lyrics by Sherman Edwards, book by Peter Stone. Directed by Peter Flynn. Choreography, Michael Bobbitt; wigs and make-up, Cookie Jordan; music direction, Jay Crowder; dialects, Susanne Sulby. With James Konicek, Floyd King, Rick Hammerly, Matthew A. Anderson, Dan Manning, Thomas Adrian Simpson, Gregory Maheu, Erin Kruse, Michael Bunce, Chris Sizemore, Steven Carpenter, Drew Eshelman, Matthew John Kacergis. About 2 hours, 50 minutes. Through May 19 at Ford’s Theatre, 511 10th St. NW. Visit www.fords.org or call 800-982-2787.

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