Alexander Hamilton is not a character in “1776” – and John Adams, the central character in “1776” is not a character in “Hamilton.” But both are entertaining history lessons about the founding of the United States of America, and, if nothing else, the Encore production of the earlier musical is well-timed; one hopes the fanatical interest in Lin-Manuel Miranda’s current hip-hop hit will fan renewed interest in the earlier hit, which first opened on Broadway 47 years ago.
But there are other things that the Encores production does well – principally the casting of Santino Fontana as John Adams.
In its own way, “1776” turns the Broadway musical upside down, certainly at Encores, which was created in 1994 with the aim of presenting concert versions of Broadway musicals that had worthwhile scores but problematic books. But the book of “1776” is the best thing about the show – some say it’s the best book of a musical ever. While rooting the story in the actual history (even excerpting phrases and sentences from letters and documents of the time), librettist Peter Stone enlivens the deliberations by the members of the Continental Congress that led to the signing of the Declaration of Independence. It is educational, yes, but it is also suspenseful, funny, playful, sharply relevant and downright moving. The dialogue takes center stage. Sherman Edwards’s score contains only a baker’s dozen of songs in a running time of almost three hours. A half hour goes by without a single song. But audiences don’t feel deprived: While they’re all pleasant enough, only a handful of the songs offer memorable melodies and lyrics.
So, the Encores commitment to the original orchestrations performed by a full orchestra sharing (most of) the space on stage with the actors means less than it would with many other musicals. In addition, choreography and design, rarely Encores strong suits, are almost unnoticeable in this production of “1776.” The one noticeable design element is the costume design: Dressing the cast in modern business suits doesn’t do much for me; turning Abigail Adams (Christiane Noll) into some sort of butch 21st century gardener in dungarees, plaid shirt and L.L. Bean down vest does even less.
Yet, ultimately, none of these shortcomings, nor the uneven performances of the large cast, diminish the effect of “1776,” which is on stage at the New York City Center only through April 3, 2016. The show seems especially important, during this election year, to remind ourselves of the compromises and tensions that imperfect men hammered out to create a more perfect union.
Admittedly, it’s a stretch for a charismatic actor like Santino Fontana to play “obnoxious and disliked” (which John Adams calls himself in the show, and which the real Adams actually called himself.) But Fontana is one of the most talented and versatile performers on the New York stage, and he takes charge both in song and in speech. We share his frustration, his passion and (dare I say this?) his patriotism, from his very first speech:
“I have come to the conclusion that one useless man is called a disgrace – that two are called a law-firm – and that three or more become a Congress.”
Encores! at New York City Center
Music and Lyrics by Sherman Edwards
Book by Peter Stone
Based on a Concept by Sherman Edwards
Original Production Directed by Peter Hunt
Originally Produced on the Broadway Stage by Stuart Ostrow
Starring Terence Archie, John Behlmann, Larry Bull, Nikki Renée Daniels, André De Shields, Macintyre Dixon, Santino Fontana, Alexander Gemignani, John Hickok, John Hillner, John Larroquette, Kevin Ligon, John-Michael Lyles, Laird Mackintosh, Michael McCormick, Michael Medeiros, Christiane Noll, Bryce Pinkham, Wayne Pretlow, Tom Alan Robbins, Robert Sella, Ric Stoneback, Jubilant Sykes, Vishal Vaidya, Nicholas Ward, and Jacob Keith Watson.
Featuring The Encores! Orchestra
Choreography by Chris Bailey
Guest Music Director Ben Whiteley
Directed by Garry Hynes