Review: '1776' by Connecticut Repertory Theatre

Nancy Sasso Janis

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! - John Adams

Storrs, CT - ‘1776’ is a work that dramatizes the statesman John Adams’ efforts to convince his colleagues in the Continental Congress to vote to declare America’s independence from Great Britain and sign the Declaration of Independence. The musical features music and lyrics by Sherman Edwards and a book by Peter Stone based upon a concept by Mr. Edwards. After tryouts in New Haven and Washington, the show opened on Broadway in 1969. The twenty founding fathers are portrayed as extremely human and from the familiar first song “Sit Down, John” we know that there will not be a reverential tone.

The production by Connecticut Repertory Theatre on the Storrs campus of UCONN was directed by Terrence Mann, so the Broadway veteran himself welcomed the packed audience and thanked everyone for attending. In his director’s note for ‘1776,’ he writes “Apart from being a brilliant piece of classical theatre, it is, at its core, a singularly profound history lesson. It chronicles our forefathers’ deliberate and often untenable journey to becoming a democratic republic.”

Scene Three of 1776 holds the record for the longest time in a musical without a single note of music played or sung – over thirty minutes pass between songs. During this scene of the Broadway production, musicians were allowed to leave the pit, reportedly the first time in Broadway history that they were permitted to do so in the middle of a show. This was probably when I began to note the slower bits of the show; the music that was there was fine, I just wished there was a bit more of it.

Jamie LaVerdiere (‘The Producers,’ ‘Pirate Queen,’ ‘Motown’ on Broadway) took up the challenge of the role of the abrasive John Adams from Massachusetts in his CRT debut and did not miss a beat. His wife Abigail Adams was brought to life by the powerful voice and commanding stage presence of Gaelen Gilliland (straight from the cast of ‘Kinky Boots’ on Broadway.) The only other woman in the cast was Paige Smith as Thomas Jefferson’s wife Martha; I look forward to seeing this actress in the role of Katherine Plumber in CRT’s ‘Newsies.’

Charlie Patterson played the president of the Congress and the man who ultimately and purposefully signed the declaration in the largest handwriting. Cullen Ries was Josiah Bartlett, the ancestor of the ‘West Wing’ fictional president played by Martin Sheehan. Mr. Ries will play Oscar Delancey in the upcoming production of ‘Newsies.’ Frank Mack, a professor at UConn who once played Dickinson in ‘1776,’ was Stephen Hopkins of Rhode Island, Alessandro Gian Viviano, a student at The Hartt School, was the noble Roger Sherman from Connecticut, and Derrick Holmes, a recent UConn graduate, abstained from every vote as Lewis Morris of New York. UConn grad Kent Coleman (Kent in ‘King Lear’) played Robert Livingston from New York.

Jayke Workman, a junior at The Hartt School, was Rev. Jonathan Witherspoon from New Jersey and Max Helfand, a rising senior from Norwalk, appeared as Samuel Chase who hailed from Maryland (pronounced Mary - land.) The Carolinas were represented in pastel colors by Matt Kemp as Joseph Hewes and Noah Kieserman as Edward Rutledge. Mr. Kieserman will play Davey in the upcoming production of ‘Newsies’ by CRT. Georgia had Nate Healey as Dr. Lyman Hall and a painter. Mr. Healey will appear as Theodore Roosevelt in the upcoming production of ‘Newsies.’

The Pennsylvania delegation included UConn grad Richard R. Henry, a standout as Benjamin Franklin, Adam Harrington making his CRT debut as the prickly John Dickinson and UConn grad Darren Lee Brown (‘King Lear’) as James Wilson. The delegation from Delaware was made up of UConn director of performance training Dale AJ Rose (Doc in ‘West Side Story’) as the elderly Caesar Rodney, Jamie Colburn as Col. Thomas McKean, and Tuck Sweeney as George Reed.

The brash men from Virginia were played by Simon Longnight as Richard Henry Lee, who did well with “The Lees of Old Virginia” and will be in the ‘Newsies’ ensemble, and Will Bryant as the red haired Thomas Jefferson.

Elliot Styles played the congressional secretary and Aidan Marchetti, a rising junior at UConn, was the custodian and bringer of rum. Dharon Jones donned a leather apron, Jamal Fields-Green, a 4th year student at University of Hartford, had a solo as a courier and Nate Healy, a graduate of The Hartt School, was Dr. Lyman Hall, a painter. Mr. Healey will play Theodore Roosevelt in the upcoming production of ‘Newsies.’

Kudos to the costumer on great wigs that did not distract for the most part. Period costumes by Fan Zhang were both attractive and period appropriate and the orchestra under the musical direction of John Pike sounded great and authentic to the period. Tim Brown’s scenic design captured the colonial period and the declaration itself at the same time and Michael Chybowski lit it all nicely.

Overall, this was a very strong, tightly directed production of a fine old school musical. I liked the scenes where the gentlemen froze in place. It is always a treat to see a stage full of talented male performers because it is hardly the norm and is one of the reasons that I look forward to a third viewing of ‘Newsies.’

The Nutmeg Summer Series productions include “1776” from June 1 to June 10; “Noises Off” from June 15 to June 25; and “Newsies” from July 6 to July 16. All shows are at the Harriet S. Jorgensen Theatre. For more information go to or call 860-486-2113.

Photo by Gerry Goodstein


Nancy Sasso Janis is a member of the Connecticut Critics Circle and continues to contribute theatre news to local sites. Check out her new Facebook page Nancy Sasso Janis: Theatre Reviewer and follow her on Twitter @nancysjanis417