On Thursday night, I took a work-related field trip out to the Paper Mill Playhouse in Millburn, NJ to see their production of 1776. A two hour-plus musical dramatization of the signing of the Declaration of Independence isn’t everyone’s idea of a choice night at the theater, but for a history dork like me, it’s hard to pass up. It also helps that 1776 is a good show. Not a great one, but it can be with the right people. Unfortunately, the Paper Mill’s production falls just short of greatness.
Knowing the outcome of the story, it’s necessary for the audience at 1776 to still want to see its protagonist, the rabid revolutionary John Adams, succeed. Even though he’s characterized as a pain in the ass to everyone else in Philadelphia that summer, we know he’s right and we should be on his side. However, actor Don Stephenson takes Adams’ arrogance and impatience to such heights that he wound up becoming a pain in my ass, too. Stephenson had this bizarre habit of raising the speed and volume of his voice whenever it was appropriate (and sometimes not) to play Adams as agitated. During heated arguments, he sounded more like a stalling Celica than an impassioned statesman. And once he turned his nasty attitude on his faraway wife Abigail, I lost all sympathy for him.
I would have been even more pissed had actress Kerry O’Malley been any good as Abigail. Unfortunately, she didn’t make much of what is admittedly a flimsy role. Lauren Kennedy fared better as Martha Jefferson, but that was only because she had a much better song. Still, these are the only two women in the entire show, and they both missed their chance to leave any lasting impression. James Barbour certainly left an impression as Edward Rutledge, but that was only because his performance of “Molasses to Rum” was so sleazy I felt I needed a shower the minute I got home. The song is supposed to make you feel uncomfortable; after all, it’s Rutledge’s damning analysis of how the hypocrites of New England enable and rely on slavery as much as Southeners do. Yet Barbour seemed to take it just one step too far. It crossed the line from cynical to sexual.
The rest of the cast balanced out these inadequacies. Conrad John Schuck was perfect as Benjamin Franklin, playing the American renaissance man as everyone’s favorite bawdy but brilliant grandpa. Kevin Earley as the reluctant Thomas Jefferson was able to convey more meaning in his measured line readings and controlled movements than Stephenson did while flailing and frothing at the mouth as Adams. Standouts among the Continental Congress included Jeff Brooks as John Witherspoon of New Jersey, Aaron Ramey playing Virginia’s Richard Henry Lee with a Dukes of Hazzard wildness, and Nick Wyman as the plainspoken John Hancock.
If 1776 has a villain, it comes in the form of Pennsylvania’s John Dickinson, the man most opposed to independence from Britain. Rather than spiral to overdramatic heights to combat Stephenson’s Adams, Robert Cuccioli plays Dickinson as, as he later sings, a “cool, considerate man”. He counters Adams’ passion with reason (as well as with some ego and condescension). With his slick hair, bright eyes and prominent nose, movements as smooth as his voice, and shiny green period ensemble, Cuccioli brings to mind a moray eel roosting in its coral habitat, waiting for unsuspecting prey to pass. Yet he doesn’t make Dickinson hateful, and in the end the Representative from the State of Pennsylvania honors the decision of his colleagues.
The production values were excellent. Kevin Rupnik constucted a set that was wonderfully multifunctional and accomplished the daunting task of visibly seating over two dozen men on stage. Alejo Vietti’s costumes were authentic and showed the distinctions in class and style representative of the more volatile differences already emerging among these men and their constituencies. The acoustics were a bit off, but the orchestra sounded great most of the time.
To conclude: Despite my complaints, 1776 wasn’t a bad show. Just a good one.