‘1776’ mixes humor, music, history with aplomb

Once you get past the initial giggles induced by the idea of a musical about the American Revolution, it’s smooth sailing.

It would be easy for a play with this subject matter to resort to simplistic praise-the-Lord-and-pass-the-ammunition patriotism, but “1776” retains a surprising degree of complexity.

The plot follows the efforts of John Adams (played by Tom Skore) to convince the Continental Congress to declare independence from Great Britain in the weeks leading up to July 4, 1776.

Sound riveting? Actually, it’s pulled off with aplomb.

The play, directed by Frances Cavais Lautenberger, is funny in a sometimes Monty Pythonesque sort of way. The costumes and make-up contribute beautifully to the historical realism. The set, despite being crammed onto such a small stage, complements the action. The lighting is emotionally effective. The musical accompaniment is well timed and unobtrusive. The performances, especially among the primary cast, are consistently well delivered.

This is a production that achieves that rare theatrical condition – consistency.

Although it seems unfair to pick out the flaws in a production so beautifully executed, it is necessary to point out two.

- Advertisement -

Col. Thomas McKean’s (Frank Hardy) presumably Scottish accent wanders all over the place and he sometimes sounds a little like Speedy Gonzales.

Martha Jefferson (Lauren Green) is inaudible at low notes.

These are nitpicky problems with an otherwise solid production.

I suspect it is no accident this play was selected for production in the weeks leading up to a crucial presidential election. Some lines and ideas in “1776” carry an eerie resonance in America’s current political climate.

For example, when debating whether to break with the British crown and declare independence, John Dickinson (Stuart Matthews) argues against the revolution in an effort to protect the properties and privileges of the wealthy.

Adams’ response, delivered with blood-chilling disdain, includes the line, “That’s right. So fat, so safe, so comfortable.”

With the exception of a few heavy scenes – congress debating whether an indictment of slavery should be included in the declaration – the play does not get mired in its own historical weight.

There were several children in the audience who seemed to genuinely enjoy the production, despite its three-hour length.

Although “1776” contains no whistle-it-on-the-way-home tunes, the vocal ensemble is astounding. In Anchorage, it is rare to find such vocal mastery assembled in one cast.

Another highlight of the production is Brent Bateman’s performance of the bawdy, good-natured Benjamin Franklin. The character lends the play much of its humor, via innuendo and witticism.

The friendships and partnerships between Franklin, Adams and Thomas Jefferson (Tim Gillard) are portrayed with affection and expert timing.

Also noteworthy is Brandon Lawrence’s portrayal of John Hancock, which is so understated and sincere that it may forever define your perception of Hancock.

“1776” plays in the Fine Arts Building Mainstage theater through Nov 7. Show times are 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday and 3 p.m. Sunday. For Friday and Saturday shows, reserved seats are $17 and general admission is $12. UAA students can buy reserved seats for $15 or general admission for $10. Reserved seats for Sunday shows are $13 and general admission is $9. With a valid UAA ID, Sunday tickets are $7.

This is a production that achieves that rare theatrical condition – consistency.