American history meets musical theater with a bang in "1776."
The founding fathers are not legends in this rollicking romp through American independence. They are just men who bicker and brawl amid the fly-ridden heat of the Continental Congress.
Benjamin Franklin (Andrew Boyer) suffers from gout and frequent napping. Thomas Jefferson (Brandon Dalquist) is so horny he can't concentrate. John Adams (John Hickok) is so obnoxious that his personality nearly derails the Revolutionary War.
While the musical is a bit of a red, white and blue chestnut, inasmuch as we all know how the story ends, there's no denying the wit and muscularity of Frank Galati's revival, which zooms by even at 2 hours, 45 minutes. Shot through with pageantry, pomp and aphorisms, the patriotic musical runs through Oct. 6 at San Francisco's American Conservatory Theater.
The triumph of Peter Stone and Sherman Edwards' rousing musical is that it humanizes figures who often seem made of marble. The play captures the drama and intrigue leading up to the signing of the Declaration of Independence.
Far from a fait accompli, the birth of the nation is a highly unlikely proposition. Issues of greed, complacency and fractiousness deadlock Congress for months of sweltering heat and fraying tempers. The delegation from Philadelphia is as anxious to cling to the British Empire as Adams is to cast off tyrants. The representative from Rhode Island (Dan Hiatt) is smashed on rum by 10 a.m. The delegation from New York abstains from all votes (albeit courteously).
In our own era of partisan political quagmires, it's heartening to remember that democracy is always a tricky business, and divisiveness may well be part of the DNA of the country. Galati, who has a gift for illuminating the American character ("The Grapes of Wrath," "Ragtime"), creates as much suspense as a whodunit as the politicians come to blows over the question of nationhood. Despite their powdered wigs and lily white stockings, these gentlemen get down and dirty over their competing notions of the country's destiny.
Adams fumes while Congress "piddles" and "twiddles." The Conservatives, led by John Dickinson (a sly turn by Jeff Parker) deliver a lovely minuet as they march "ever to the right" to ensure their pursuits of property in "Cool, Cool, Considerate Men." The Southern delegation, headed by Edward Rutledge (a suave Jarrod Zimmerman), defends its peculiar institution of slavery in the show-stopper "Molasses to Rum."
Some patches feel a tad static. The frequently milked gag about statesmen forced into celibacy gets old, there are perhaps too many cutesy duets between Adams and his stalwart wife Abigail (Abby Mueller), and the song about the chirping bald eagle "The Egg" isn't nearly as good as the rest of the score, but these are mere quibbles.
Framed by Russell Metheny's handsomely appointed set, Galati paints the fate of the 13 colonies as a vast tableau of hope and fear and courage that is hard to resist. Some of the most heroic parts of the tale have been largely forgotten, such as Caesar Rodney (Jerry Lloyd), a sickly man who rode 80 miles in a thunderstorm to cast his vote and break a tie. Even the aspects of the text that border on corny are endowed with a certain charm by virtue of the adroit performances and the galvanic score. "Momma, Look Sharp," the lament of a courier who has watched his friends die in battle, gets a haunting rendition by Zach Kenney.
The fire and blood of revolution has never been so enjoyable as in this Yankee Doodle hit.
Music and lyrics by
book by Peter Stone
Through: Oct. 6
Where: A.C.T.'s Geary
Theater, 415 Geary St.,
Running: 2 hours, 45 minutes (one intermission)
Tickets: 415-749-2228, www.act-sf.org