The Public's 1776 | Theater | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper

The Public's 1776

The musical about the American Revolution is highly regarded by theater cognoscenti but rarely performed.

When in the course: George Merrick (as John Adams) in the Public's 1776.
When in the course: George Merrick (as John Adams) in the Public's 1776.

You gotta love musical theater. A couple of weeks ago, I reviewed Les Miz, which is about one of the French Revolutions. Now it's Pittsburgh Public Theater's production of 1776, the Sherman Edwards (music and lyrics) and Peter Stone (book) musical about the American Revolution.

Well, really, the crafting and signing of the Declaration of Independence. Here the fiery John Adams, aided by Ben Franklin and Thomas Jefferson, are pushing the Second Continental Congress to break free from England and declare American sovereignty.

1776 is something of a cult show — highly regarded by theater cognoscenti but rarely performed. It's an interesting work, written with intelligence, integrity and humor. But it's also massive: There are 13 colonies sending two representatives per ... so you're looking at a cast of at least 26 men. (Plus Martha Jefferson and Abigail Adams!) There's not another musical like it. It might be true that it would work better as a non-musical — the numbers feel tacked on — but those songs are undeniably entertaining.

Interestingly, 1776 is also about 1969, the year it premiered, with obvious references to the '60s political divide, Vietnam, the women's movement and a particularly scalding section about liberty-spouting men purposely looking away from the enslavement of blacks. What's most interesting is that there's no mention of what the American Revolution was really about — Europeans and their offspring fighting for the right to commit genocide and steal native land.

Director Ted Pappas does terrific work keeping this large cast and divergent work on task and up to snuff. He does just as well with the sprawling ensemble numbers as with the intimate character scenes. Each of the secondary legislators are giving identifiable, and usually amusing, quirks and this mammoth group hits all available beats.

Libby Servais, as Martha, and Trista Moldovan, as Abigail, contribute welcome bright notes and Hayden Tee's indictment of hypocrisy "Molasses to Rum" is startling and frightening. The role of a Franklin is written almost as a randy burlesque comic, and Steven Vinovich doesn't miss a laugh. And while George Merrick's Adams could use a touch more gravitas, ultimately he's very entertaining — and moving — as the show's ringleader.

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