Palm Beach Dramaworks’ production of the Founding Fathers musical “1776” opens not with erudite white men in jerkins and tri-corner hats but with … Rachel Maddow? Yes, there she is, projected onto the set, on our left. A moment later, her Fox News timeslot rival, Megyn Kelly, appears on our right (naturally). Before long, we’re being bombarded with the buzzing chorus of the punditocracy—Joe Scarborough projected here, Bill O’Reilly projected there, discussing the spokes in yesterday’s news cycles: Brexit, the gun-control sit-in, this filthy presidential race. Gradually the actors walk onstage in 21st century plainclothes, their tweets and texts about a chaotic and broken system of governance appearing alongside the cable-news excerpts.
It’s just one example of director Clive Cholerton’s re-imagining of this durable 1969 Tony winner, a provocative overture that connects past to present, underlining the notion that while we may think things are bad now, sink your teeth into the score-settling nastiness of the Declaration of Independence debate. Yet it’s an unnecessary flourish, because the historicity of political brinksmanship and congressional gridlock are embedded in Sherman Edwards and Peter Stone’s source material. Tuned-in audiences don’t need audiovisual prompts to understand the prescience of opening numbers “Sit Down, John” and “Piddle, Twiddle and Resolve,” the latter a flavorful rebuke of the original Do-Nothing (Continental) Congress.
Where Cholerton’s novel ideas really take flight is the fluidity of his intimate vision. Instead of a full orchestra, musical director Craig D. Ames leads an onstage quintet through stripped-down arrangements of Edwards’ score, with emphasis on plaintive violin, spartan keyboard and crescendoing percussion. Cholerton shaved down a cast of nearly 20 to a manageable 13, most of them doubling in two or three parts. Genders, like the arc of progress, bend toward history. Laura Hodos and Mallory Newbrough are cast in the positions of the greatest power and influence—as John Hancock and George Washington, respectively—leaving the squawking male egotists to piddle, twiddle and resolve until a signable document takes shape.
This takes a goodly while, and perhaps it should, if one is to recognize the gravity of the historical moment. But “1776” remains indefensibly overlong, thanks to its notoriously epic 30-minute stretch without music in Act One and a pair of songs—“He Plays the Violin” and “Momma Look Sharp”—that, while lovingly performed, add nothing to the plot and could easily be excised.
“1776” is strongest when it keeps its focus on the key players in the Declaration fisticuffs, with Cholerton and his cast skillfully capturing Edwards’ lightness of tone. As John Adams, the ringleader of the independence movement, Gary Cadwallader is a fiery orator for his cause, channeling Adams’ persuasive optimism and his alienating stridency in equal measure. Allan Baker is a convivial Benjamin Franklin, a self-satisfied sage who also supports independence but is able to temper Adams’ harsher tones. Together, Cadwallader and Baker come across as bickering besties in a vintage buddy comedy.
They’re surrounded by a set of screwballs slinging ribald ripostes like political mud. None is screwier than Nicholas Richberg’s Richard Henry Lee, the Virginia delegate instrumental in bringing the independence debate to the congressional floor. This is Richberg’s most outsized role since his Carbonell-winning performance as the proto-Captain Hook in the Arsht Center’s “Peter and the Starcatcher.” His Lee is a conceited dandy huckster, an 18th century Harold Hill prancing and preening through the show’s most polarizing number, “The Lees of Old Virginia.” He could be accused of scenery chewing if Edwards and Stone didn’t approve of such mastication; one character describes Lee as a “strutting popinjay.” Still, I wasn’t unhappy when Lee exited the show and Richberg settled into the more substantial role of John Dickinson, a British loyalist and the Declaration’s final holdout. The actor makes for a great venom-spitter, convincingly proud of his isolated position, unraveling as loudly and then quietly as Juror No. 3 in “Twelve Angry Men.”
As for Hodos, who excels here as both Hancock and Abigail Adams, this is another ideal role in her increasingly capacious wheelhouse, one that showcases her comic timing and her golden, operatic voice. On numbers like “Yours, Yours, Yours” and “Compliments,” she provides the emotional core of this occasionally unwieldy musical.
Plenty more familiar faces stock the supporting cast with idiosyncratic talent, including Clay Cartland as Jefferson and Georgia delegate Lyman Hall; Sandi Stock as Robert Livingston and two other roles; Troy J. Stanley as Col. Thomas McKean and Joseph Hewes; Matthew Korinko as the meek judge James Wilson and one other part; James Berkeley as Roger Sherman and congressional gofer Andrew McNair; and Shane Tanner as Edward Rutledge and South Carolina delegate Josiah Bartlett. Not all of them are blessed with characters of significance and some invariably bleed into the background, though Tanner, finally, emerges from the ensemble to thunder through the show’s most powerful number, “Molasses to Rum,” in Act Two.
But the main star, arguably, is Cholerton, whose achievements here transcend mere translation. He effectively transforms a big-budget extravaganza into a scaled-down chamber musical perfectly tailored to Dramaworks’ dimensions. He keeps all the parts moving effortlessly, from the individual elements of Michael Amico’s agile set, with its wheeled desks, chairs, windows, doors and balustrades, to the actors themselves. The show is blocked in a way that we don’t notice when an actor has slipped off stage and has reappeared 30 seconds later as a different character—except in the few cases when Cholerton wants us to notice.
The opening of this “1776” is winking postmodern flash; it’s the subtle grace of movement that lends this independence celebration its fireworks.
“1776” runs through July 24 at Palm Beach Dramaworks, 201 Clematis St., West Palm Beach. Tickets cost $65. Call 561/514-4042 ext. 2 or visit palmbeachdramaworks.org.