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.