Stage review: Public's '1776' a spirited rendition


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John Adams didn't seem to mind when fellow congressional delegates disparaged him as an obnoxious agitator. After all, when inciting a revolution, you are bound to offend someone.

The creators of the musical "1776" put John Adams front and center, daring us to root for a most unlikable fellow's relentless and obnoxious pursuit of independence from England. As portrayed by George Merrick in Pittsburgh Public Theater's smart and spirited production at the O'Reilly Theater, a grouchy Adams howls and whines and refuses to "shut up and sit down," as his colleagues beg him. It's May 1776, and he has lost patience for those who stand for reconciliation, even as Gen. Washington's ragtag Continental Army is endangered by King George's Hessian troops.

'1776'

Where: Pittsburgh Public Theater at the O'Reilly Theater, Downtown.

When: Through Feb. 24. 7 p.m. Tuesdays, 8 p.m. Wednesdays-Thursdays, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturdays and 2 and 7 p.m. Sundays (check ppt. org for deviations or changes to schedule).

Tickets: $29-$60 (discounts for students, 26 and under and seniors), ppt.org or 412-316-1600.

Adams' partner in independence and counterpoint in personality is amiable Ben Franklin, 70 years wise in 1776. He's played with a knowing twinkle in his eye by Steve Vinovich. The Merrick-Vinovich pairing of theater veterans -- the yin and yang of political negotiators -- is among the triumphs of director Ted Pappas' casting. They are joined in their pursuit by egomaniacal Richard Henry Lee (Broadway vet John Scherer).

As days tick toward July 4 and machinations to gain votes for independence reach a fever pitch, the trip down history lane bears more and more resemblance to a scene from "Lincoln" -- or C-Span.

Mr. Pappas planned his company's Made in America season with "1776" as its cornerstone, and the Public (if not the public) has lucked out in the rancorous 2013 Congress. You could watch the partisan grilling of Chuck Hagel and Hillary Rodham Clinton, then get a taste of a similar level of discourse in the midst of the Cultural District. On opening night, there were guffaws aplenty for Adams' definition of useless men: one is a disgrace, three a law firm and two dozen? Congress.

There's humor, of course -- Jon Stewart would have had as much fun with the dysfunctional Continental Congress as the one in session today. But the stakes in 1776 were high. Those signatures on the Declaration of Independence were an act of treason, and the voices of opposition to independence were loud and strong. Pennsylvanian John Dickinson (a regal Darren Eliker, decked out in gold) provided a powerful argument for reconciliation with king and country.

When Clive Barnes reviewed the show for The New York Times in 1969, he gave it a fervent thumb's up, saying, "The authors have really captured the Spirit of '76." And that is what's best about the Public's production of the Tony-winning best musical.

More accurate is the original billing of "1776" as a musical play. The songs aren't much to hang a three-cornered hat on, but the concept and lyrics by Sherman Edwards and Peter Stone's book prove to be a stirring combo. The setup songs are of the meet-cute sort -- "Sit Down, John" and "Piddle, Twiddle and Resolve" -- then the tunes are gone for long stretches of debate during a protracted first act. Songs pop up again with varying degrees of effectiveness, among the best any time Abigail Adams appears.

The men are crowded in a room where the oppressive Philadelphia heat is often a topic of discussion. Then Abigail (Trista Moldovan) appears like a breath of fresh air, sharing intimate moments via letters. Libby Servais as a sexy newlywed Martha Jefferson is likewise a welcome sight. Her enthusiasm is a salve for everyone around her, in particular her groom, hot-blooded Thomas Jefferson, played by Keith Hines.

You may recall the tall, handsome Mr. Hines as Lancelot from the Public's "Camelot." King Arthur in that production was Hayden Tee, who returns to the Public as Edward Rutledge, a strutting peacock from South Carolina.

He puts the New England hypocrites in their place with a dynamic rendition of "Molasses to Rum," a chilling song about how the North benefits from the slave trade as much as the South. Rutledge wants a passage that would free slaves stricken from the Declaration, but Adams and Jefferson push back. Mr. Tee's showstopper commands the moment, and Rutledge wins the day when Franklin counsels "first things first" -- get his vote for independence, then work on freedom for all men.

As May turns to June in "1776," we are reminded that England is almost at the front door when a messenger arrives intermittently with words of desperation and despair from "General G. Washington." Joseph Domencic, as Continental Congress secretary Charles Thomson, conveys each dispatch with gravity, while no-name Courier (Eric Meyers) gives sweet-voiced poignancy to the lament "Momma, Look Sharp."

The play's focus moves from actor to actor, but perhaps the biggest star of the production is James Noone's set design, with suggestions of Federal-style architecture and austere wood-paneled walls, frames and shutters. The revolving stage, maneuvering above a pit holding seven musicians, allows outsiders a peek into the Philadelphia state house, where the tight quarters lend credence to declarations of exhausting heat and flies being swatted by another Adams ally, John Hancock (Bricolage's Jeffrey Carpenter).

Costumer Martha Bromelmeier and wig designer Sherry Deberson must have jumped for joy when Mr. Pappas announced the coming of "1776." That Mr. Vinovich is immediately recognizable as old Ben Franklin is a must, but hair and clothes distinguish each individual as well, from Adams' relatively plain wardrobe to the golden frock of naysayer Dickinson. As Maryland's Samuel Chase, Larry John Meyers' piled-high white wig is a thing of colonial wonder.

Costuming and wrangling such a large cast, which includes local stalwarts Tim Hartman and James FitzGerald, was surely a monumental undertaking, but Mr. Pappas and the Public's staff are up to the task. The actors have teamed up for the greater good of playing out "the course of human events," as Jefferson put it in the Declaration of Independence, which is given its due with a richly deserved moment in the spotlight.

theaterreviews

Sharon Eberson: seberson@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1960.


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