Theater Review: '1776 The Musical'

Ben Miles
James Bar4bour (standing) and the company starring in 1776 The Musical.

It’s not “Hamilton”  –  its music and lyrics (by Sherman Edwards) and the book (by Peter Stone) are much more in the tradition of other standard American musicals than is Lin-Manuel Miranda’s rap infused story of the nation’s first Secretary of the Treasury. Nevertheless, “1776” was the recipient of many critical kudos when it premiered on Broadway in 1969. The show ran for 1,217 performances  – earning five Tony Awards, including the coveted award for Best Musical.

Now “1776,” a musical dramatization of the founding of this nation, is on stage at the La Mirada Performing Arts Center and it is an extraordinary display of stagecraft and talent. Under the stewardship of director Glenn Casale, with musical direction by Jeff Rizzo, and 26 performers characterizing historic personas  –  including such American luminaries as Ben Franklin (Peter Van Norden embodies Franklin with humor, wisdom and an uncanny knack for song and dance); John Adams (portrayed with amusing sternness and resonate voice by Andy Umberger); and Thomas Jefferson (quietly but effectively essayed by Caleb Shaw).

The initial song and dance routine  –  “For God’s Sake, John, Sit Down”  –  establishes John Adams as the pedantic but committed and motivating leader (while also displaying Andy Umberg’s prowess as a performer). Also, in act one we are introduced to the wife of John Adam’s, Abigail (the melodically impressive Teri Bibb), declaring her fortifying support of John Adam’s notion of a unified nation in “Till Then,” a duet well sung by both Bibb and Umberg.

There are many firsts and finest among these equally able actors. Other notable characters are Stephan Hopkins (played by Gordon Goodman, as the rum-soaked delegate from Rhode Island); Virginian Richard Henry Lee (vitally incarnated by Michael Starr, doing a clever dittie, “The Lee’s of Old Virginia,” along with Franklin [Van Norden] and Adams [Umberg]); and South Carolina’s Edward Rutledge (a persuasive John Barbour underscoring the hypocrisy beneath the fledgling nation’s debate on slavery in “Molasses to Rum”); and the Courier (conveyed by Nick McKenna who renders the heartbreaking number “Momma Look Sharp”).

“1776” is an inspiring take on a monumental time in American history. Still, much dramatic license is taken with the script. For example, there were actually 56 signatories to the Declaration of Independence, but to fit the stage and the attention abilities of theatergoers, “1776” has narrowed the delegates to 19, often combining and consolidating these historic individuals. But adherence to the recorded history holds forth in important ways, i.e., the lyrics of some of the musical’s songs are taken word-per-word from letters written by John Adams to his wife, Abigail.

With period-punctuated costuming by Shon LeBlanc; a time-setting scenic design by Stephen Gifford; mood-setting lighting by Jared Sayeg; pristine sound engineering by Philip G. Allen and Leon Rothenberg; and a rousing seven-member orchestra, “1776” is a gives a stirring retelling of this earthshaking episode in U.S. history. Don’t miss it.

What: “1776” play through February 3 at the La Mirada Performing Arts Center.

Where: The La Mirada Performing Arts Center is located at 14900 La Mirada Boulevard, La Mirada.

How: For reservations call (562)944-9801. For online ticketing and further information visit.


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