- The Washington Times - Saturday, April 19, 2008

It’s life, liberty and the pursuit of zestiness at Olney Theatre’s staging of “1776,” directed and choreographed by Stephen Nachamie without a whit of the wax-museum mustiness that sometimes clings to productions of this 1969 musical about the Founding Fathers.

Mr. Nachamie, aided by a cadre of exuberantly talented actors, brings fire and passion to this seminal chapter of American history, charting the epic struggles and trivial arguments leading to the Continental Congress’ decision to declare independence from Britain.

The members of the Continental Congress — and a few selected wives — are portrayed not as stiff portraiture figures, but as flawed, fickle human beings constantly in furious motion. John Adams (Paul Binotto, who makes abrasiveness a positive character trait) is an exhausting windbag who just won’t let up on the rhetoric. Benjamin Franklin (Harry A. Winter, slyly commanding and in excellent voice) is a cuddly coot content to rest on his laurels, and although afflicted with gout, he springs to life at the clarion call of wine and loose women — and, oh yes, liberty. Thomas Jefferson (Bob Richardson, adeptly playing a distracted romantic hero) is a redheaded menace, a restless intellectual who aches for a different kind of congress with his young wife, Martha (Jessica Lauren Ball).

The three men coerce and cajole a motley crew of congressmen into giving up their self-interests and allegiance to King George during one hot Philadelphia summer. (The abundant slams against the city were warmly received by the Olney audience.) Even the less prominent figures make vivid impressions in this production: Bill Largess as the poignant patriot Caesar Rodney; John Tweel’s James Wilson, the nebbishy yes-man to the strong-arm tactics of British loyalist John Dickinson (Thomas Adrian Simpson, sneeringly effective as an enemy to liberty); Carl Randolph’s elegantly august John Hancock; and Chris Sizemore using Southern gentility to devastating effect in his blistering solo, “Molasses to Rum,” a song about the Colonies’ complicity in slavery.

The women get a brief but warming moment in the spotlight as well — Eileen Ward’s scintillating turn as Abigail Adams, John’s resilient and witty helpmate; and the delightful sexual frisson of Miss Ball’s Martha Jefferson, who giddily recounts how her husband hits all the right notes in “He Plays the Violin.”

“1776” is more of a docudrama with songs than a sung-through musical, and you may find your eyelids growing leaden during protracted scenes where John Adams tries to get a majority rule or the Continental Congress debates various issues. Happily, these trapped-in-American-history-class moments pass by pleasantly and are leavened by clever and soaring production numbers that make “1776” a flag-waving triumph.

****

WHAT: “1776,” music and lyrics by Sherman Edwards, book by Peter Stone

WHERE: Olney Theatre Center, 2001 Olney-Sandy Spring Road

WHEN: 8 p.m. Wednesdays through Saturdays, 2 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays (select 2 p.m. Wednesday matinees), 7:30 p.m. Sundays. Through May 11.

TICKETS: $25 to $48

PHONE: 301/924-3400

WEB SITE: www.olneytheatre.org MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS

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