Review: “1776,” America’s Tuneful Origin Story Gets Vibrant New Staging at La Mirada Theatre

1776 - LA MIRADA - FINAL - 1.jpg

Michael L. Quintos

Associate Los Angeles Critic

As of the writing (and perhaps publishing) time of this review, the United States government, mere weeks into 2019, continues to be shut down—an unfortunate by-product of our current combative, unwilling-to-compromise political climate that’s more about the attainment (and retainment) of party power rather than the actual pursuit of overall prosperity and goodness of the country. In the midst of these troubling times, what hardly no one can argue against, though, is the fact that thousands of livelihoods are now being negatively and perilously affected by this mess, and that, hopefully, a resolution happens very soon rather than much, much later.

But, then again, endless debating—ideally to decide on actions and policies for the “greater good” by a governing body that’s been elected or chosen to represent the population—is, of course, nothing new. Actually, it feels as though history just keeps repeating its machinations.

The very founding of our nation, as it so happened, also began as a series of seemingly stalemated debates between stubborn and, at times, hot-headed, sternly resolute men during the hot-as-hell summer of 1776. Crammed together in an uncomfortably warm, mosquito-infested meeting hall in the city of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, delegates in the Second Continental Congress representing America’s original colonies have all (well, mostly all) gathered to debate the merits of independency from the ruling British Empire.

Who knew that the idea of a “deadlocked” Congress isn’t just a modern day occurrence?

These passionate open debates and the intriguing behind-the-scenes negotiating and lobbying that would eventually lead up to the signing of the Declaration of Independence is, of course, the focus of the gripping Tony Award-winning stage classic “1776”—the historically-inspired 1969 Broadway musical that is now on stage at the La Mirada Theatre for the Performing Arts in a vibrant, richly-satisfying new local production produced by McCoy Rigby Entertainment and directed and staged by Glenn Casale. Featuring spry, appealing songs from Sherman Edwards and a riveting book by Peter Stone, this stage classic’s latest SoCal regional revival is already proving to be one of the new year’s must-see productions, thanks to its timely arrival, its admirable stage craft, and its fiercely outstanding 26-member ensemble cast.

It is, understandably, no surprise that there is much renewed interest in “1776” these days, considering there is, you know, this other musical out there that is also a rousing retelling of events from American history, and particularly one surrounding one of the nation’s Founding Fathers—but has been a decidedly much harder ticket to procure. While there are certainly some parallels to be drawn between the more classically-treated “1776” and this century’s more forward-minded (and, it pains me to say, more creatively-expressed) “HAMILTON,” the two shows couldn’t be more different—which, in the bigger picture, is a really good thing for both shows. Each have their own unique laudable qualities that make them separately compelling.

Of course, it’s hard these days not to think of one without thinking about the other. Heck, even this very show’s marketing doesn’t shy away from connecting the dots to Lin-Manuel Miranda’s blockbuster hit, emblazoning its collateral and advertising with a new, fresh tagline: “Be in the room where it actually happened.” Haha. We get it.

But “1776” existed first, and by its own merits, the show is itself quite an engaging history lesson disguised as a thrilling theater piece that actually feels more like an absorbing, comprehensively presented straight play sprinkled with the occasional welcome musical interlude. The show’s eloquent, verbose dialogue (whether much or little of it is absolutely and historically accurate) is so engrossing that, at one point, in the talk-heavy first act, you completely miss the fact that one scene—a riveting debate where neither side truly gains dominance—goes on for a good 20 or so minutes without any musical interruption (the first act itself is a whopping 1 hour and 45 minutes, which magically breezes by thanks to this musical’s naturally spellbinding storytelling).

The title, of course, refers to the year in which our Founding Fathers (SPOILER ALERT haha) had agreed, after much spirited, lively debate, that the colonies needed to “commit treason” and sever its ties to its ruling home country by declaring independency—where contentious bargaining, reluctant compromises, and opinionated hearts played significant roles in getting to that decision.

The Amer-exit movement’s fiercest advocate is Massachusetts representative John Adams (the superb Andy Umberger), who has, unfortunately, developed a reputation for being “obnoxious and disliked” by everyone who interacts with him. But he is justifiably frustrated about the continuous inefficacy of Congress (hmmm… that rings a bell) who collectively refuses to even debate the idea of independency. His loud, very vocal protestations to “vote Yes” to independence in the assembly hall forces everyone to constantly yell at him to “Sit down, John!”

As a way to keep himself grounded and focused, Adams often finds solace in the loving letters he receives from his patient wife Abigail (the lovely-voiced Teri Bibb) whom he interacts with in his imagination.

His one genuine ally in the cause is infamous inventor and Pennsylvania representative Benjamin Franklin (a fun and buoyant Peter Van Norden) who eventually convinces Adams that his proposal for independency may be more palatable to the other members of Congress if it was presented by someone else… someone that is more, um, likable, perhaps.

First to be tapped for the task is the charismatic Virginia rep Richard Henry Lee (a winning Michael Starr) who succeeds in gaining a formal resolution from his home state that proposes that the union of Colonies cut all ties with England. Predictably, Congress is vehemently split—a recurring motif throughout the musical—eliciting more angry debates back and forth. Eventually the President of the Congress, penmanship aficionado John Hancock (the commanding Nick Santa Maria) along with Secretary Charles Thomson (Jordan Goodsell), are urged to call for a vote to continue discussions.

Five of the colonies—New Hampshire, Massachusetts, Connecticut, Delaware and Virginia—vote to keep the debates going, while five other colonies—Pennsylvania, Maryland, North Carolina, South Carolina, and Georgia—vote to postpone further talks indefinitely (which even in today's comparatively more combative Congress would mean the “postponement” is really just a nicer way to say that the proposal is practically a dead issue).

New York’s rep, Lewis Morris (Jotapé Lockwood), as usual, “courteously” abstains, a repeated voting response that becomes a curiously funny running gag that will probably force every audience member to Google it afterwards. But it is Rhode Island’s cantankerous Stephen Hopkins (Gordon Goodman) who breaks the tie, voting in favor of continuing the debates. It’s fortunate, then, otherwise this show—and, you know, the future of our nation—would have died right then and there.

Before long, Rev. John Witherspoon (Mitchell McCollum) arrives to represent the often-absent delegation of New Jersey, further complicating the situation by adding his pro-independency vote, which now stands at six for independence and six against independence (with New York abstaining, of course).

1776 - LA MIRADA - FINAL - 9.jpg

Adams can sort of taste victory in the horizon, and even reminds Hancock, the president of the Congress who happens to be pro-independency, that his higher-ranking role allows him the ability to break ties. To counter this possibility, John Dickinson (Michael Stone Forrest)—the strongest voice in the movement against independency—immediately proposes that the vote for independency must pass only unanimously, which is soon swiftly approved after Hancock breaks the tie.

“No colony should be torn from its mother country without its own consent,“ Dickinson pointedly argues.

The slight setback forces Adams to quickly call for a postponement of the vote (which also eventually passes, again thanks to Hancock’s tie-breaking vote) so that a proper, formally-written document of declaration can be composed to absolutely outline the reasons why independency is sought from England in the first place.

This seems to be an accepted-enough point, prompting Hancock to assign the reluctant Thomas Jefferson (the excellent Caleb Shaw) to join the ad-hoc committee tasked to draft the declaration. Jefferson, however, has been homesick and wants nothing more than to go home to his home state of Virginia to be with his wife Martha (the wonderful-sounding Ellie Wyman). Jefferson struggles writing it, as expected, so Franklin arranges for Martha to come to Philadelphia. His resulting mood shift, this musical proposes, enables Jefferson to compose one of human civilization’s most important historical documents—that eventually gets picked apart line by line by the Congressional assembly.

What soon transpires is a fascinating exchange of side negotiations, stubborn demands, well-intentioned ideas, and passionate arguments—all for the sake of shaping what is to later become the remarkable experiment that we all know now as the United States government.

On paper, the back-and-forth debating may seem like a tedious and unexciting thing to sit through for three hours, but in “1776” witnessing this dramatic recreation of the events that lead up to the adoption of a governing body to declare its independence is an edge-of-your-seat thrill ride, particularly with its impassioned performances prompted by this musical’s historically-based dialogue and beautifully-composed music.

In this engaging period piece, every word of dialogue and every lyric sung—everything that casual audiences might think would make for a disastrously boring theater piece because of its, well, scholastic subject matter—actually makes for an exciting and exuberant stage experience, that also illuminates an important moment in our nation’s past that we can look back on with knowing, modern sensibilities.

More than anything else, “1776” is a vivid reminder of why government—as frustrating and imperfect as it may still be—is a brilliant invention, nonetheless. Sometimes (or, perhaps, most times) it is the source of pure aggravation, but there are also times when we are thankful that it exists at all. The presentation of arguments and ideas, ideally in the hopes of persuading opponents to see things from a different perspective, is the rule of the day. Compromise is key, even if it means having to swallow one’s pride for the greater benefit in the long run.

Understandably, these ideas have again become top-of-mind to a lot of Americans lately, because, yes, the limitations of compromise are once again being tested.

As much as it troubled me to witness the eventual reason that got these colonies to all band together to sign that declaration—predicated on a compromise that allowed for the continuation of an entire race into abhorrent subjugation—is a painful reminder that America’s roots aren’t necessarily clean or untarnished, despite its aspirations. This beautifully staged production lays it all out, the good (bye, King George) and the bad (hello, slaves), and there is no way to sugarcoat it.

Despite having most of the story take place in one single great hall, “1776” never once feels static or confined. Under Casale’s thoughtful direction and dynamic staging, the production mostly feels kinetic, quite a feat for a show that features a lot of characters just standing and talking. And talking. And talking. Stephen Gifford’s set design suggests a less-claustrophobic room than previous productions I’ve seen, while Jared A. Sayeg’s lighting bathes the ensemble in hues that feel like images floating from another lifetime. Shon LeBlanc’s beautiful period costumes—of various shapes and body types—pop with technicolor-like glory, complimented well by natural-looking wigs and makeup designs by EB Bohks.

Sound-wise, this production of “1776” is one of the best-sounding regional theater shows I’ve witnessed in a long time, rivaling even a few movie theaters. Before the musical even began its triumphant opening night performance, executive producer Tom McCoy and La Mirada Theatre’s artistic director BT McNicholl took time to boast (and provide a compare-and-contrast demo) of the theater’s brand new, state-of-the-art sound system, and, wow, is it ever a great investment. The actors, whether speaking or singing sound amazing against the backdrop of the show’s outstanding orchestra under the baton of musical director Jeff Rizzo. When the entire cast harmonizes, accompanied by the lush, grandiose score from its full orchestra, it’s surround-sound ear candy of the best kind.

It’s worth repeating just how excellent this production’s huge ensemble is, led by the exceptional trio of Umberger, Van Norden, and Shaw as three main instigators for independency. Each actor gets a moment to shine and they take that responsibility to heart and we as the audience reap the rewards. They all have a palpable chemistry with each other, which relates well to their characters.

Other cast standouts include Michael Rothhaar as the constantly barked-at Congressional Custodian, Mr. McNair; Goodman as Stephen Hopkins of Rhode Island; Starr as Virginia’s Richard Henry Lee; and Santa Maria as Congressional leader Hancock.

Also worth noting are Bibb and Wyman, who both provide memorable turns as the sole ladies in the cast, Mrs. Adams and Mrs. Jefferson, respectively. Both women offer their exquisite voices as lovely contrasts to all the thunderous male harmonies in the room, while providing a cheeky inside look at how they both had a muse-like hand in helping their respective spouses. Nick McKenna manages to snag the spotlight a few times as the young courier who periodically stomps his awkward way into the chamber to deliver messages from General George Washington. His haunting Act 1 closing song “Momma Look Sharp,” is a needed emotional moment that pierces the heart.

Finally, James Barbour turns in an impressive performance as Edward Rutledge, the oily, Southern-drawled gentleman representing South Carolina. His scary-good “Molasses to Rum” in the second act is a shudder-inducing show-stopping number that had everyone cheering, even as his intentionally-malicious character ferociously lays out what is essentially the hard-to-ignore point of compromise that drives the unanimous votes toward independency.

Do not miss La Mirada Theatre’s spellbinding production of this rarely produced but prophetically well-timed musical. While most of us may be searching high and low nowadays for an escape from our harrowing current political realities, experiencing this admirably crafted theater piece about a significant moment in our nation’s timeline is still a welcome diversion, even though at times it feels like a cautionary tale. But this production is worth experiencing live, not only for its richly layered narrative and tuneful songbook but also for its laudable hardworking actors that have assembled together to bring this true story to life.

Photos by Jason Niedle courtesy of La Mirada Theatre for the Performing Arts.

McCoy Rigby Entertainment and La Mirada Theatre for the Performing Arts presents “1776 - THE MUSICAL.”

Music and Lyrics by Sherman Edwards. Book by Peter Stone. Based on a concept by Sherman Edwards.

Musical Direction by Jeff Rizzo. Directed & Staged by Glenn Casale.

“1776 - THE MUSICAL” stars James Barbour, Peter Van Norden, Andy Umberger, Teri Bibb, Caleb Shaw, Ellie Wyman, Nick Santa Maria, Peter Allen Vogt, Victor E. Chan, Brad Rupp, Gordon Goodman, Jason Chacon, Jordan Goodsell, Jordan Schneider, Jotapé Lockwood, Matthew Kimbrough, Michael Dotson, Michael Rothhaar, Michael Starr, Michael Stone Forrest, Mitchell McCollum, Ted Barton, Joey Ruggiero, Rodrigo Varandas, and Nick McKenna.

“1776 - THE MUSICAL” features Scenic Design by Stephen Gifford; Lighting Design by Jared A. Sayeg; Co-Sound Design by Leon Rothenberg & Phil Allen; Costume Design by Shon LeBlanc; Hair/Wig/Makeup Design by EB Bohks; Properties Design is by Kevin Williams.

Performances of the McCoy Rigby Entertainment presentation of “1776 - THE MUSICAL” at The La Mirada Theatre for the Performing Arts continue through Sunday, February 3, 2019. The theater is located at 14900 La Mirada Boulevard in the city of La Mirada. Parking is Free. For tickets, visit www.LaMiradaTheatre.com or call (562) 944-9801 or (714) 994-6310.

Following the La Mirada Theatre engagement, “1776 - THE MUSICAL” transfers to the Younes and Soraya Nazarian Center for the Performing Arts (The Soraya) at CSUN for four performances Friday, February 8 through Sunday, February 10. For tickets, please visit TheSoraya.org or phone at (818) 677-3000.

Follow this reviewer on Twitter @cre8iveMLQ.