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The Spirit of '76

A musical history lesson

Al Gore isn't the first presidential candidate to be labeled a bore. In fact, this year's Democratic nominee is in some heady company, if you can believe Sherman Edwards and Peter Stone's rousingly patriotic 1776, about the signing of the Declaration of Independence. Apparently the great founding father John Adams was also something of a nattering dullard.

Good thing, too. Theater Under the Stars' charming production of this musical history lesson makes it clear that without Adams's loudmouthed nagging, our nation would probably fly the Union Jack and boast dinner tables overflowing with greasy fish and chips. As it happened, Adams, along with the rest of the Continental Congress, managed to burn a slender path of revolutionary rhetoric that would lead our nation to independence. But not without a fight. It is this war of words during the first congressional meetings that provide the dramatic spine of 1776.

As Edwards and Stone tell it, politics hasn't changed all that much over the last two centuries. In June 1776, the missives from George Washington, who was fighting the British with limited troops and supplies and without a declaration of war, were depressing. And the congressmen could do little more than bicker over who drank what as they swatted at swarms of flies in the oppressively hot city of Philadelphia. Meanwhile, the passionate Adams (John Hillner) fumed. "Two useless men are called a law firm. Three or more are called a congress," he moaned. They "piddle, twiddle and resolve, but not one damned thing do they solve." Some things never change.

Thus Adams becomes the great agitator at the center of this drama. But he must turn to Ben Franklin, that voice of colonial wisdom, for help, since every man in congress has told Adams that he's "obnoxious and disliked." Franklin, played by Jay Garner with all the big-bellied, twinkly-eyed amusement of a patriotic Santa Claus, must keep Adams in check, advising him to get a more well-liked congressman to pitch this idea of revolution.

Such political machinations pull the Virginian Richard Henry Lee (Gary Beach) to the forefront of history. In one of the silliest, albeit most amusing, songs of the night, "The Lees of Old Virginia," Beach hitches up his lanky legs and bounds about the Arena stage like a daddy-longlegs country yuckster. Lee claims the power to change the course of a country, singing, "Here a Lee. There a Lee. Everywhere a Lee, a Lee." History class was never this much fun.

Most of the score skips very lightly over the events that led up to revolution. The few serious moments are predictable though dramatically effective. The first comes from Shannon Stoeke, who plays Washington's courier. He limps into congress, dusty and weary from the battlefront, and sings the tender "Momma Look Sharp," a tune about the ravages of war on the young men who sacrifice everything in the name of freedom.

"Molasses to Rum" looms over the second act. The beautiful and disturbing song arrives at the moment when the South is battling to remove all of Thomas Jefferson's language about abolishing slavery from the Declaration of Independence. Edward Rutledge (Joe Cassidy), a representative from South Carolina, reminds congress that the North profits a good deal from the slave trade, too. Cassidy tackles the song's bitter power with the sort of Machiavellian elegance that the cruel tale demands. The whips crack, the chains rattle, and the slave traders call in the distance. It is the most memorable moment of the night.

But it is Hillner's Adams, full of priggish ironic wit and bombastic, handsome passion, that makes this production so uniformly successful. Underneath all the boorish haranguing is a man who wants great things for his country. His hardheaded, fist-banging cries for freedom are inspiring.

If the nattering of presidential candidates during the debates hasn't roused your red-blooded, patriotic spirits, see 1776. You'll leave the theater wanting to stride straight to the voting booth.

 
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