The Muny invites St. Louis audiences to celebrate our nation’s independence with a spirited and heartfelt production of ‘1776.’ The history-focused musical centers on the debate about and writing of the Declaration of Independence in the weeks leading up to the Continental Congress’ approval of Thomas Jefferson’s carefully crafted document. Filled with strong characters that frequently disagree, the satisfying show takes modern audiences back in time to the very moment when the colonies decided to become the United States.
The men were entrusted with making the decision to stay aligned with England or strike out and form a new nation with a radical new approach to governing. They don’t easily fit into tidy stereotypes, other than the fact they were all white landowners, and certainly weren’t of the same mind. John Hancock, president of the congress, struggled to keep fights from breaking out and to appease Rhode Island’s Stephen Hopkins, a man more concerned about filling his cup with rum than the debate on the floor.
John Adams, the Massachusetts representative and a staunch supporter of independence, wasn’t particularly well liked. He had frequent arguments with other members of congress, particularly John Dickinson, one of the Pennsylvania delegates and the leader of a more conservative faction that favored the king’s continued rule. Jefferson longs to return to Virginia to see his wife, and is suffering from writer’s block, so Adams and Ben Franklin arrange to have her come to him.
Maryland and Virginia need to be convinced to join the cause, and Adams, Franklin and, eventually Jefferson, work to recruit Richard Henry Lee, the cocky senior statesman from Virginia, and Maryland’s Samuel Chase. The New York delegation was so disorganized that they abstained from voting on any proposition or point of rule up until the moment they signed the document. Looming over all the discussions was the issue of slavery, particularly after Jefferson included emancipation in his original version of the Declaration. Chaos threatens to derail the congress at every turn, but somehow compromises are struck, resulting in the outcome we celebrate each July, though it wasn’t a certainty until the ink was dry.
Robert Petkoff turns in a rousing performance as the determined Adams. Though he’s quick to jump into any argument, Petkoff ensures that Adams is likeable, logical and relatable for modern audiences. His voice is pleasing and strong, and his duets with the captivating Jenny Powers as the patient and loving Abigail Adams are vocal highlights. Adam Heller is the sprightly and quick-witted Benjamin Franklin and his verbal repartee is delightfully crisp and appropriately pointed. Keith Hines uses all of his height and smooth, slightly accented voice to ensure the quiet natured Jefferson holds our attention and his scenes with Ali Ewoldt, as Martha Jefferson, sizzle enough to make Adams blush, which is one of the musical’s delightfully comic touches.
Ben Davis as John Dickinson, Brian Keane as Col. Thomas McKean and Ryan Andes as Richard Henry Lee stand out in supporting roles as do Michael James Reed, as Continental Congress President John Hancock, and Patrick Blindauer, as Samuel Chase. Reed and Blindauer join Ben Nordstrom, Joneal Joplin, Jerry Vogel, Gary Glasgow, Benjamin Love, Rich Pisarkiewicz and Alex Prakken as cast members with ties to the St. Louis region.
The show features a lot more drama and acting than modern audiences may expect, but several songs, including “Sit Down John,” “Till Then,” “But, Mr. Adams,” “He Plays the Violin,” “Cool, Cool Considerate Man,” the poetic “The Egg” and controversial “Molasses to Rum” are well executed and memorable. Luke Cantarella’s striking set design takes us into the room where the men debate while Alejo Vietti’s costumes and Leah J. Loukas wigs set the period. Under the sharp direction of Rob Ruggiero, the leads and ensemble are uniformly strong and committed to the characters while music director James Moore and choreographer Enrique Brown keep the pace lively and constantly moving forward.
As the show opens, John Adams is once again making his pitch for the colonies to revolt against the tyrannical rule of the English king and the outcome is never clear until the final scene, keeping tension high. Though audience members may recognize the story from school, the captivating ‘1776,’ with music and lyrics by history teacher Sherman Edwards and book by Peter Stone, brings the history lessons to life with colorful detail.
At The Muny through July 3. For more information call (314) 361-1900 or visit www.muny.org.