Olney's '1776,' Declaring Itself a Winner

By Nelson Pressley
Special to The Washington Post
Saturday, April 19, 2008

Feeling bitter about the campaign? Cling to "1776," the feel-good musical about the Declaration of Independence.

Yes, it's broad and sappy, and it's not even musical most of the time (even though it beat "Hair" and "Promises, Promises" for the Tony Award in 1969). But the story's hard to resist: buncha guys in a hot Philadelphia room bickering about a revolution, with Thomas Jefferson making it sound elegant.

"1776" sometimes threatens to render this history as intolerably cute, but Olney Theatre Center's tradition-minded, sturdy production generally makes the show better. The acting's good, the voices are strong and the masculine cast sings the breeches off the Sherman Edwards score every chance it gets.

Which isn't often, after the amusing "Sit Down, John," roared by the Congress at the perpetually agitated John Adams. The songs, rendered in plucky fife-and-drum style by musical director Chris Youstra's small orchestra, are frequently peculiar and extremely intermittent. Oddities include Richard Henry Lee's "The Lees of Old Virginia" -- the "-ly" suffix punning childishly on his name throughout -- and Martha Jefferson's romantic ode to her husband, "He Plays the Violin."

In her bit appearance as Martha, Jessica Lauren Ball could hardly be more appealing, which is pretty much how things go in director-choreographer Stephen Nachamie's well-cast production. Thomas Jefferson is not much heard from, yet tall Rob Richardson is a terrific presence in the part. And when he sings "The Egg" (about hatching this cockamamie democracy plan) with Paul Binotto's Adams and Harry A. Winter's Benjamin Franklin, his deep voice is so buttery, you wish he had more to do.

Too much of the show dwells on Adams's fulminating, which Binotto doesn't always keep shy of Yosemite Sam tantrums. But the long, uninterrupted scenes of Peter Stone's book do allow the predicament to take hold. Is a unanimous vote necessary? (Yes.) Can the South be persuaded? (Yes -- for an awful price.)

The actors grab the lapels of their long coats and pontificate nicely as the American style of political haggling takes root. Thomas Adrian Simpson is noble as the conservative John Dickinson of Pennsylvania, Bill Largess brings out the quiet bravery of Delaware's ailing Caesar Rodney, and Chris Sizemore is searing as Edward Rutledge, the South Carolinian who stands up for slavery in "Molasses to Rum."

If you saw the film version in seventh-grade history class, this will be more or less as you recall it (though longer -- nearly three hours). Franklin's still a charming rascal, here played by the mischievous Winter in a stringy gray wig. Adams's impatience is still highhanded, and the bawdy jokes are low but gentle.

Luckily, Nachamie doesn't try to make too much of this slight-but-cheery entertainment. Nor does he shortchange the show or its fans. Each time a peripheral character steps forward, the show delivers, whether it's Sam Ludwig as the courier singing the haunting "Momma Look Sharp" or any of the delegates asserting his particular concerns. Nachamie's cast members generally handle themselves as adults, even in this kid's-eye depiction of the Founding Fathers.

1776, music and lyrics by Sherman Edwards, book by Peter Stone. Directed and choreographed by Stephen Nachamie. Lighting design, Jeffrey Koger; costumes, Howard Vincent Kurtz; sound, Jarett Pisani. With Don Edward Black, Peter Boyer, Andrew Boza, Michael Bunce, John Dow, Byron Fenstermacker, James Garland, Dave Joria, Don Kenefick, Scott Kenison, H. Alan Hoffman, Joe Myering, Joe Peck, Carl Randolph, Ben Shovlin, Jonathan Lee Taylor, Joseph Thanner, John Tweel and Eileen Ward. Through May 11 at Olney Theatre Center, 2001 Olney-Sandy Spring Rd., Olney. Call 301-924-3400 or visit

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