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'1776' provides authentic look at historic signing

| Friday, Feb. 1, 2013, 9:06 p.m.
George Merrick as John Adams in '1776.' Pittsburgh Public Theater

REVIEW

The journey to American independence was long, occasionally tedious, full of conflict and intermittently redeemed by moments of humor, humanity and authentic passion.

The same could be said for the Pittsburgh Public Theater's production of “1776” that's playing through Feb. 24 at the O'Reilly Theater, Downtown.

Following its Broadway debut, “1776” won the 1969 Tony for best musical, and in 1998, it won the Tony for best revival of a musical.

Its creator, Sherman Edwards, spent seven years researching and writing this saga of the fractious debates, squabbles, indecision and politicking that the Second Continental Congress engaged in during the two months that preceded its unanimous ratification of the Declaration of Independence.

Ultimately, Edwards was credited as the show's composer and lyricist while credit for the script goes to Peter Stone, who turned it into the version that we now know.

For many, this is a well-loved musical that reminds them that the fathers of our country — and at least two of its women — were human beings and that voting for independence was as risky as it was unprecedented.

No one can fault Edwards for his attention to detail and authenticity. Each and every one of the musical's 26 characters has distinct personality traits and quirks that help the audience sort out and remember who's who and where they stand.

The cast is first-rate. You can feel the frustration of George Merrick's intemperate, impatient, almost-universally disliked John Adams. Steve Vinovich's Ben Franklin is entertainingly wily and politically savvy and a bit of a saucy rogue.

Lesser-known delegates such as Daniel Krell's indecisive Dr. Lyman Hall and Hayden Tee's aristocratic Edward Rutledge are well-defined by both Edwards' words and the actors who play them.

We see far too little of Trista Moldovan's sensible, plain-speaking Abigail Adams.

Set almost entirely within the hot, cramped, fly-plagued chamber of the Continental Congress in Philadelphia, the show follows the debates, rivalries and quibbling that ensues as these representatives of the 13 colonies grope their way to breaking free of English control.

It will feel realistic to anyone familiar with the contemporary political scene.

Director Ted Pappas' staging enlivens many of the songs, most notably by emphasizing the vaudeville energy of “The Lees of Old Virginia,” “But, Mr. Adams” and “Sit Down, John.”

But, aside from the musical's two darkly eloquent numbers — “Molasses to Rum” and “Momma, Look Sharp” — many of the numbers are eminently forgettable and do little but prolong the evening.

It's a show that continues Pittsburgh Public Theater's legacy of creating big-cast, expensive productions that are well-supported with lavish, intricately decorated costumes, attractive sets with practical solutions and a well-rehearsed and talented cast.

At two hours and 45 minutes with one intermission, it feels as though Edwards was trying to give the audience a sense of the Congress' tedious, trying and very long schlep to the evening's pivotal moment.

By the time they did, I was as impatient for that vote as John Adams was.

Alice T. Carter is the theater critic for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 412-320-7808 or acarter@tribweb.com.

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