They were, in a manner of speaking, the original Tea Partiers. A bunch of stridently anti-tax, small-government extremists, they were hell-bent on disrupting the political status quo, wresting control from the capital and expanding local authority. The prevailing powers likely saw them as kooks, cranks and malcontents.
Yet, under that sainted sobriquet “the Founding Fathers,” they are remembered and revered as some of history’s greatest men — passionate, courageous, resourceful, visionary — and among the most influential political thinkers, writers and activist the world has known.
And if we’re to believe the way they’re being portrayed currently at Lakewood Theatre Company, they could sing a little, too.
1776, the high-spirited musical by composer/lyricist Sherman Edwards and librettist Peter Stone, dramatizes their finest hour. Well, actually, their finest two months, that crucial period from early May to early July in which the Second Continental Congress, against internal odds and long division (or maybe the reverse), approved a resolution to declare the 13 colonies independent of Great Britain, and so launched a new nation upon the tide of history.
Even at nearly three hours, the tale of that prolonged debate fairly flies by. We know all along what the outcome will be and when it will arrive, yet Edwards and Stone manage to turn that historical inevitability into, if not quite suspense, a sort of tick-tock tension that cranks up the pressure as the Congressional custodian (played with great put-upon patience by Jim Crino) tears away the calendar pages toward July 4.
The show premiered in 1969, a time of division and upheaval in America’s sense of itself. Yet “1776” doesn’t indulge in counter-culture revisionism or reflexive hagiography. It doesn’t mess with the straightforwardly patriotic essence of the events in question; it’s not satirical. But its tone is gently irreverent, giving us a batch of sweaty, grousing Founders who are collectively disorganized and irresolute, individually are, by turns, rum-soaked, vain, timid, incurably pompous, and so on. The most agreed-upon fact among them is not that King George is a tyrant, or even that the Philadelphia summer is unbearably stifling, but that John Adams, the leader of the revolutionaries, is “obnoxious and disliked.” This approach humanizes the characters without diminishing their endeavors, allowing the story to move deftly through its varying comic, romantic and epic moments.
“It makes even an Englishman’s heart beat a little faster,” the London-born Clive Barnes wrote in The New York Times back in ‘69. A few years later, when a film adaptation was released and then a bus-and-trucker visited Portland’s Civic Auditorium, it became the first musical this writer fell in love with. (Apart from “Jesus Christ Superstar,” it was for many years the only musical I loved. I was a rock fan and a history buff, not a theater kid.)
Lakewood’s production, directed by Kurt Raimer, is, therefore, a most welcome blast from the past. Despite being, in essence, a sixth-grade civics lesson, it is engaging, endearing, often very funny, at times poignant, and ultimately, rousing. It’ll give you a surge of national pride, but also some disquieting thoughts and maybe even a little shame about the compromises and contradictions baked into the Declaration of Independence and the still-troubled body politic it consecrated.
Like the story, the production has a clear hero: However obnoxious this John Adams may be, however pushy, impatient and gruff, it must be nigh impossible to dislike Darius Pierce in the role. He excels at expressions of barely suppressed exasperation, eyes flat and jaw clenched, appearing simultaneously bored and combustible while those around him dither. One moment he’s suffering fools with droll comic timing, the next he’s burning hot with ego and high principle, then he’s suddenly quieter, showing his weary, frayed edges in epistolary exchanges with his wife, Abigail, back in Boston.
Granted, Pierce’s singing is dogged most of the way by an effortful quality; he’s foremost an actor. But he hits the notes, stays true to the character, and when the music matters most he has the help of the show’s secret weapon. As Abigail Adams, the remarkable Dru Rutledge duets with Pierce on the touching ballads “Till Then,” “Yours, Yours, Yours” and “Is Anybody There,” and her voice shines like a golden ray of light and warmth, the kind of sound that could sustain a heart if not a whole nation. The main story here doesn’t lack for emotion, but it’s mostly heated passions about ideas, egos and power. Rutledge’s Abigail (and, in a smaller role, Kelly Lanzillo as Martha Jefferson) connects the stakes of the plot to true feelings — not just the softness of romance but the embodiment of the stability, peace and promise these idealists are fighting for. That Rutledge conveys such a depth of affection and care for Pierce’s Adams while never standing within five feet of him (they’re conversing through letters, remember) is a bonus.
Adams’ antagonists here are nearly as potent. Heath Koerschgen brings an appropriately noble bearing and voice to the loyalist John Dickinson. Dave Cole plays the combative arrogance of Southern slavery advocate Edward Rutledge — who indicts Northern hypocrisy in “Molasses to Rum,” a searing depiction of the so-called Triangle Trade — while steering well clear of villainous caricature.
And perhaps a grateful nod is due also to Don and Sharon Plumb, the show sponsors. It’s not every day you get to see a cast of 26 in a local production.
One can find gripes with both the material and its presentation here. For instance, for all its efforts at balance, the play lets the Founders off the hook pretty easily on the slavery question. “What good is the rest without independence,” Franklin tells Adams, arguing that they drop a passage critical of the slave trade or else lose Southern support. No one points out that “the rest” was a matter of lifelong bondage for a half-million people, weighed in the balance against…higher taxes.
As for this staging, several scenes look too static, and, rather awkwardly, the Congress is seated so that all the delegates have their backs to John Hancock, who is presiding. On opening night, several would-be funny moments foundered on missed details of timing and emphasis.
That last matter is likely to be taken care of before too long as this generally skillful cast settles in and figures out what works. Maybe they’re a bit like the rest of us, always having to work at that more perfect union.
1776 continues through October 16 at Lakewood Theater Company, Lakewood Center for the Arts, 368 South State Street, Lake Oswego. Ticket and schedule information here.