When the curtain rises on Michael Schweikardt’s stunning diorama of a set for “1776,” it’s like seeing a living portrait of a great moment from history. But Goodspeed’s handsome staging of the musical is more than just a tableau vivant — though it sometimes veers toward being too vivant for its own good. A fine ensemble and terrific production values do justice to Peter Stone’s savvy book and Sherman Edward’s glorious score. With such talents at hand, you don’t need or want a revolutionary production. You just want the revolution to speak — and sing — for itself.
And sing it does with voices that fill, and often overfill, the historic Connecticut theater that was around during this country’s first centennial.
With a tightly crafted, narrative-rich, mostly single-set show that doesn’t allow much of a director’s imprint, helmer Rob Ruggiero takes a smart course and focuses on the relationships onstage. He gives the sizable cast — Goodspeed’s largest ever at 26 — a series of beautifully rendered human moments.
Whether it’s Peter A. Carey as firebrand John Adams, forcing himself into quietude to the point of implosion; Ronn Carroll as Benjamin Franklin, serenely confident in his gift of persuasion; or Edward Watts as Thomas Jefferson, coming to terms with duty over libidinous self, these are all characters we care for not as historic figures but as real people.
But marring such deft and telling touches is the tendency to overplay, either projecting far too big for the size of the house or selling a song with too much histrionics or pizzazz. Teal Wicks has lovely, lively presence and voice as Martha Jefferson. But her joyous and otherwise splendid “He Plays the Violin” is spoiled on the very last notes when she tries too hard for applause.
Not trusting the music or the moment is also a weakness during “Molasses to Rum,” a song that should begin with insinuation before ending in a powerful indictment of the North’s involvement in the slave trade. But Glenn Seven Alan’s Edward Rutledge begins the number with unleashed harshness and so has nowhere to go but over the top.
But there are wonderful moments, too, that are rendered just right. A courier (Christopher Michael Kauffmann), as still as a prayer, brings the warfront into the halls of Congress with the aching ballad “Momma, Look Sharp.” With choreographer Ralph D. Perkins’ help, the congressional right wingers perform a delightfully delicate minuet to conservatism (“Cool, Considerate Men”). And as Abigail Adams, Jayne Peterson brings perfect pitch in scene and song in her duets with John, including the exquisite “‘Til Then.”
It’s hard to forget William Daniels’ perf as Adams in the original production (which lives on in filmed and recorded versions), but Carey does well, bringing exasperation, zealotry and fierce intelligence to the role. The wry Carroll and the striking Watts are solid, as are Marc Kessler, Alan Rust, Richard White and John Newton in their congressional roles.
Collectively, they contribute to the ongoing life of a thoroughly American musical that continues to engage, entertain and inspire.