‘1776’ captures suspenseful time in history

Photo: Elizabeth Mandel

The monster hit musical “Hamilton” has spurred interest across a wide swath of the American public in the earliest days of the republic. “1776,” a musical by Sherman Edwards and Peter Stone, precedes “Hamilton” by several decades — it premiered on Broadway in 1969 — but is a worthy vehicle for refreshing one’s memories of the Founding Fathers.

In this case, it’s John Adams at the forefront as the Second Congressional Congress tries to bring representatives from the 13 colonies into agreement on declaring independence from the king. It’s a rocky, uphill road as Adams, the “obnoxious and disliked” delegate from Massachusetts, hectors, arm-twists and harangues his fellow delegates toward a Declaration of Independence.

One of the show’s tricks is that, even though we all know how things turned out, it’s able to sustain suspense. Will the southern colonies secede at the get-go? Will New York ever vote at all? Will the absent General George Washington win a battle?

South Valley Civic Theatre reprises a production last presented in 2006, and even calls up some of its 2006 cast for the same roles, most notably Peter Mandel as Adams, Tami Piper as Abigail Adams, and the rangy Michael Lund as red-haired Thomas Jefferson. Jon Reed was John Hancock in 2006 and is an avuncular Benjamin Franklin this time around.

Mandel frets and fusses over the snail’s pace of the delegates, his frustration amply demonstrated in “Piddle, Twiddle,” in contrast to his relationship to his wife, Abigail. The two communicated only by letter during the months of the Second Congressional Congress, but their loving relationship shines through as the two of them sing some lovely duets together, coming close but never touching. Piper has a pretty voice and a smile to match.

Lund’s Jefferson is frustrated in a different direction from the crawl of the political process. He too is unwillingly separated from his wife, Martha (Sierra Shirley-Reuter), but his pain is more acute because they are newlyweds. A scene in which the Jeffersons reunite for a weekend is quite funny.

A particular bright spot in the production, directed by Colleen Blanchard, is the number of gifted younger men in the cast. Travis Blanchard as Pennsylvania delegate John Dickinson and Daniel McDonald as South Carolina delegate Edward Rutledge bring plenty of fresh energy to their roles. And Gannon Janisch’s beautifully sung report from the battlefield, “Momma Look Sharp,” brings into stark relief what’s going on outside the congressional chambers.

Music director Terry Sodergren ably leads the pit orchestra, and the cast is nicely costumed by Kathy Tom in powdered wigs, breeches and elaborate coats. The action plays out mostly in the congressional chambers, designed by Blanchard and Larry Tom.

“1776” focuses neatly on what happens when the fervency of revolution gives way to the hard and frustrating work of actual government. Times change, and yet some things remain constant.

“1776, The Musical.” Music and lyrics by Sherman Edwards, book by Peter Stone. South Valley Civic Theatre. Reviewed April 26. Additional performances May 3-5 and 10-12 at the Morgan Hill Community Playhouse, 17090 Monterey Road, Morgan Hill. www.svct.org; 408-842-7469.

This article was written by Susan L. Rife for South Valley Magazine.

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