Hear! Hear! The Continental Congress has assembled at Paper Mill Playhouse. A color guard from nearby Maguire Air Force Base marched down the aisle to centerstage on opening night, joining the audience in the national anthem and getting the rousing 40th anniversary production of “1776” off to a spirited start. The bells toll once again for the signing of the Declaration of Independence, providing a timely reminder of the stand for unity in a world of turmoil and doubt. And it’s even better when set to music.
Composer Sherman Edwards, who died in 1981, created a score of great vigor and melodic sweep that soars with guts and glory.
The principal historical figures are well-drawn here: Don Stephenson is the quick-tempered and single-minded John Adams, a shrewd politician who really cares for his cause; Conrad John Schuck blesses gout-ridden Benjamin Franklin with bluster and charm; stalwart Thomas Jefferson is played with restraint by Kevin Earley; and Aaron Ramey provides a great rush of humor as Richard Henry Lee with “The Lees of Old Virginia.”
The show’s stirring 11 o’clock number goes to James Barbour, most recently seen as Sydney Carton in Broadway’s “A Tale of Two Cities.” As staunch defender of slavery Edward Rutledge of South Carolina, he sings a smoldering version of the whip-cracking “Molasses to Rum.”
Among the ladies, Lauren Kennedy is a spirited Martha Jefferson, and Kerry O’Malley makes a winsome Abigail Adams. A sweet diversion from the congressional hearings finds Adams and Franklin joining Mrs. Jefferson for the sprightly dance that accompanies Kennedy’s joyous confessional “He Plays the Violin,” exuberantly choreographed by Josh Rhodes.
An inspired bit of casting finds George Washington’s courier played by a young black actor, Griffin Mathews, who lends the role a poignant edge, bringing the curtain down on act one with a telling account of war’s ravages in “Momma, Look Sharp.”
The large cast cut distinctive figures, and all the actors have their moments, from Robert Cuccioli’s poised John Dickinson, who sings the calming “Cool, Cool Considerate Men,” to James Coyle’s frail Caesar Rodney of Delaware.
Director Gordon Greenberg has invested the musical history lesson with tremendous verve. The muted period costumes are well tailored and picturesque, and the Congress chamber has been re-created with textbook accuracy by designer Kevin Rupnik, enhanced by Jeff Croiter’s dusty lighting design.