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Theater Review: "1776" at Ford's Theatre

A delightful—if long-winded—musical about the birth of our nation is perfectly at home at Ford’s.

Congress is in session. A room filled with selfish and self-important men with no interest in compromise variously harangue, insult, and ignore one another. For many, the main objective is to defeat anything the opposition proposes. If not for the wigs, the costumes, and the elevated accents, this could be a snapshot of Congress in 2012. But this is the Continental Congress of 1776, and the subject under discussion is independence.

It seems an unlikely subject for a Broadway musical, and at times you wish the actors would shut up and dance a little more as proper players in a musical should. But thanks to clever dialogue, wonderful voices, and standout performances, 1776 succeeds admirably. This was the case when it opened on Broadway in 1969 and won the Tony for Best Musical. This production at Ford’s Theatre has the added advantage of a perfect setting–the 18th-century costumes and furniture look like they belong in the historic surroundings.

Christopher Bloch as Benjamin Franklin, William Diggle as Thomas Jefferson, and Brooks Ashmanskas as John Adams in 1776. Photograph by Scott Suchman.

Peter Stone‘s book captures the memorable eccentricities of men who could otherwise be cardboard characters out of the American history texts we snored over as schoolchildren. Sherman Edwards‘s music and lyrics give mighty voices a chance to soar. And there isn’t a weak singer on stage. It is ironic, however, that the most memorable song is a powerful indictment of Northern hypocrisy about slavery, “Molasses to Rum,” delivered by Edward Rutledge (Gregory Maheu), the delegate from South Carolina. (Jefferson’s draft of the Declaration of Independence included a clause abolishing slavery, but it was deleted to gain the support of Southern states.)

John Adams (Brooks Ashmanskas) is the star of this show. He bullies, badgers, and bemoans the inaction of his colleagues, showing his softer side only in letters to his beloved wife, Abigail. Ashmanskas is a Broadway veteran and a welcome addition to the Washington stage. He manages to make an unrelenting character appealing. Adams’s major opponent, John Dickson from Pennsylvania (Robert Cuccioli), also makes his Ford’s debut in this production. His portrayal of haughty privilege is a perfect foil for stolid Massachusetts farmer Adams. Ford’s Theatre regular Christopher Bloch is a delightful Benjamin Franklin.

And what of the author of the famous Declaration? The young, reluctant writer Thomas Jefferson (William Diggle) plays a surprisingly small role in the drama. I am not a good enough student of history to know how faithfully 1776 follows the facts, but the stage Jefferson produces his masterpiece only after he is reunited with his beautiful young wife, whose conjugal visit revives his inspiration for democracy.

Director Peter Flynn might have picked up the speed a little–this show could have used a good editor. But it does reflect the fruiting pace of democracy in action. If this ornery Continental Congress could agree on the Declaration of Independence, perhaps there’s hope for our current Congress, after all.

Catch 1776 at Ford’s Theatre through May 19. Tickets ($49 to $75) are available through the theater’s website.