- The Washington Times - Saturday, March 22, 2003

Long before there was Saddam Hussein, there was King George III of England and American leaders were denouncing him as a tyrant. The flag-waving musical, "1776," currently being revived at Ford's Theatre, shows a Congress that is long-winded, ineffectual and mired in meaningless details. War looms. Liberal politicos want to stick it to their conservative brethren, and vice versa, and our Founding Fathers mock France for being snooty and cowardly.

Some things never change.

Minus the powdered wigs and silk breeches, the original Congress wouldn't be too out of place on Capitol Hill today. They had their windbags (Pennsylvania's John Dickinson, played by Michael L. Forrest), their yes men (Pennsylvania's John Wilson, played by Frank Robinson Jr.), and their clergymen in politics (Rev. Jon Witherspoon of New Jersey, played by Christopher Alessi).

It was both poignant and eerie to be sitting in Ford's Theatre on Monday night listening to "Momma Look Sharp" a mournful ballad about dead young soldiers aching not to die in anonymity while the president was addressing our nation about impending war.

Once past the deja vu, however, you remember you still have another three hours of "1776" to endure, and, since its original run in 1969, the musical has aged about as well as a fifth of Boone's Farm apple wine.

Talk about gassy clouds of political rhetoric precede, follow and nearly engulf every one of the precious few musical numbers. All very interesting if you're a weekend Revolutionary War re-enactor but deadly from a theatrical perspective.

The dry-witted, aphorism-spouting Benjamin Franklin (David Huddleston) and the monomaniacal John Adams (Lewis Cleale) who eats, sleeps and drinks democracy to the point where everyone at the Continental Congress refers to him as "obnoxious and disliked" have stirring and eloquent things to say about forging not only a new nation but a new nationality. But it might help if the cast moved around a bit more, rather than striking poses, as if for official portraits.

The set, with its wooden shutters and panels, clunks and clatters, adds to the feeling of stasis. The stilted movement is at odds with the often lively chatter echoing through Independence Hall during the hot Philadelphia summer when representatives of the 13 original Colonies gathered to deliberate declaring independence from the mother country.

It is downright engaging to see Thomas Jefferson (James Ludwig) portrayed as a ginger-haired whippersnapper, a man of few (spoken) words suffering from an infernal case of writer's block alleviated by the arrival of his comely wife, Martha (Kate Baldwin), who willingly performs her duty for her country.

Natives to this region, however, will be sorely disappointed in Maryland's Samuel Chase (Jim Beard), depicted as a foppish glutton who eats and drinks his way through the early days of democracy. Surely he came up for air sometime during that period.

If you can survive the oratorical excess, the musical numbers are worth the wait. "For God's Sake, John, Sit Down" and "Piddle, Twiddle" comically address the eternal stalemates paralyzing the Continental Congress. "The Lees of Virginia" is a spunky, cock-of-the-walk tribute to one of Virginia's fine old families. Sprightly and diverting, the songs suggest a Colonial flavor through the use of the fife, snare drum and pianoforte of the 18th century.

Some of the evening's prettiest moments come from the two female roles, Abigail Adams (Anne Kangengeiser) and Martha Jefferson. In "Yours, Yours, Yours" and "Compliments," we glimpse the intimacies of the Adams marriage, a meeting of like minds as much as it was a joining of hearts. And in the lighthearted "He Plays the Violin," Miss Baldwin's Martha fetchingly confesses to Franklin and Adams what made her fall so hard for the protean Jefferson.

There are more serious songs, as well. The operatic "Molasses and Rum," sung with brooding majesty by Trent Blanton, delivers a searing reminder that slavery was not exclusively a Southern problem. And Mr. Cleale has his dark night of the soul in the dramatic "Is Anybody There?" which captures Adams on the brink of losing the independence for which he had fought so doggedly.

However, a musical has to be seamless and sinuous in movement in order to wrap an audience in its melodic embrace.

With its uneasy mingling of history lessons and song and dance, "1776" is less a satisfying musical and more an intriguing, albeit starchy, theatrical experiment from the 1960s.


**

WHAT: "1776" by Sherman Edwards and Peter Stone

WHERE: Ford's Theatre, 511 10th St. NW

WHEN: 7:30 p.m. Tuesdays through Saturdays; noon Wednesday, Thursdays, and April 2 and 9; 2:30 p.m. Sundays and April 19 and 26, May 3, 10, 17, 24 and 31. Through June 1.

TICKETS: $29 to $45

PHONE: 202/347-4833

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS

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