Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton, the hip-hop hit musical about the first secretary of the Treasury and its massive success, has forever relegated Sherman Edwards and Peter Stone’s 1776 to be “that other show about our Founding Fathers.” Yet this tale of how the contentious Continental Congress debated declaring independence from Great Britain is Palm Beach Dramaworks’ pick for its summer show, in part because of its contemporary resonances.
Chosen long before Brexit made 1776 even more timely, director Clive Cholerton tacks on a non-verbal prologue depicting the combative 2016 presidential campaign. Unspoken is the message that if you think politics today has never been nastier, take a look at how our nation was born.
And so the scene flashes back 240 years to sweaty Philadelphia when delegations of the North and South can agree on nothing, and certainly not the future of the 13 colonies oppressed by Britain’s George III. The forces in favor of independence have the added handicap of being led by Massachusetts’ John Adams, an “obnoxious and disliked” pipsqueak with a talent for getting on everyone’s nerves.
The show won 1969’s Best Musical Tony Award, almost entirely for Stone’s book, which manages to inject suspense into the question of whether or not we would declare independence. It is a trick he would later repeat with Titanic, the Musical, another historic event whose outcome he throws into dramatic doubt.
Surely the Tony was not earned for the score by Edwards, a history teacher turned pop composer. With only a few exceptions, the songs are clunky doggerel, good history lessons perhaps, but hard on the ears.
Part of Cholerton’s “reimagining” of the show is a drastic reduction of the cast size, a cost-cutting measure being passed off as directorial concept. The show’s 26 roles are handled by only 13 performers, with those double assignments achieved by onstage costume changes or brief visits into the wings, Greater Tuna-style.
Some handle the dual roles well, like Laura Hodos as both gavel-happy John Hancock and Adams’ home-bound wife Abigail. Also capable in double duty is Nicholas Richberg as foppish Richard Henry Lee and Pennsylvania’s John Dickinson, the chief impediment to independence. But too many of the others apparently think donning a different brocade longcoat suffices for a new character.
Gary Cadwallader, Dramaworks’ new director of education, makes a first-rate grumpy Adams, aided by Allan Baker as an aphorism-spouting Benjamin Franklin and Clay Cartland as a horny Tom Jefferson. As Jefferson’s wife Martha, comely Mallory Newbrough gets stuck with the score’s most wince-inducing number, “He Plays the Violin,” about her taciturn hubby’s musical prowess. She fares better later as a courier reporting on battlefield carnage (“Momma, Look Sharp”). By far the most dramatic number in the score is “Molasses to Rum,” an indictment of Northern hypocrisy over slavery, sung with blistering anger by Shane R. Tanner.
Dramaworks decided to give 1776 a full production, rather than the concert format of past summers where the drastically reduced cast size could have been more easily accepted. Cholerton’s stripped-down approach looks like a cost-cutting move, which it probably is, but his staging only emphasizes the show’s shortcomings.
1776, Palm Beach Dramaworks, 201 Clematis St., West Palm Beach. Through Sunday, July 24. Tickets: $65. Call: 561-514-4042, ext. 2.