Not to worry: Director David H. Bell has mounted a lively and engaging show that celebrates American values in a capital city queasy with the approach of war. It's a fitting goodbye tribute to producing artistic director Frankie Hewitt, the woman who rebuilt this abandoned theater over three decades ago and turned it into a functioning artistic showcase and a national shrine. (Hewitt died earlier this month.)
Bell, who is also credited with musical staging, has assembled a high-energy cast, bringing in Broadway's Lewis Cleale (Once Upon A Mattress, Swinging on a Star) to contribute an electrifying performance as John Adams and film and stage actor David Huddleston, who replaced Pat Hingle as Benjamin Franklin in the 1998 Broadway revival, to reprise that role here. Many of the other faces are familiar to Ford's Theatre audiences, including James Ludwig (Kudzu) as Thomas Jefferson and Anne Kanengeiser, who won a Helen Hayes Award as the young Eleanor Roosevelt in Eleanor: An American Love Story and is now playing Abigail Adams, another woman who went on to become First Lady.
While no new ground is broken here, Bell and company prove there is a lot of life left in Sherman Edwards' music and lyrics and Peter Stone's book. 1776 is a most unusual musical, with only two women sprinkled among 23 men. That means no chorus lines and not much choreography, but the love stories between John and Abigail Adams and Thomas and Martha Jefferson are striking. Kate Baldwin, having just finished playing Nellie Forbush in Arena Stage's potent revival of South Pacific, is a luminous Martha.
Huddleston and Cleale anchor this story of the deliberations of the Continental Congress in the weeks leading up to July 4, 1776. The former doesn't really have a singer's voice but satisfactorily works his way through several songs, completely in character as a shambling, bawdy Franklin. Huddleston's real value comes in the extremely long passage without music in Act I; here, his rich characterization humanizes the parliamentary proceedings.
Cleale projects burning intensity to the back rows as Adams guides and pushes the new country into existence through a difficult birth in which slavery is used as a bargaining chip. His early duet with Kanengeiser, "Till Then," is almost operatic in its passion and dynamic scope, his soaring tenor matched by her crystal-clear soprano. As Jefferson, Ludwig has much less presence. Slight of stature and with delicate features, he does not project the customary image of the strapping Virginian, and Bell often poses him ineffectualy as the debate rages about him.
Bell deftly handles the musical's unique structure, emphasizing interpersonal strife during that very long book scene in the first act and even staging a fistfight. Many directors of this show choose to break for intermission after the up-tempo "Cool, Considerate Men," led by the principled anti-revolutionist John Dickinson (Michael L. Forest in a layered performance). But Bell has chosen to stop at the traditional spot, after the haunting lament "Momma Look Sharp," in which a young army courier played by Chris Peluso vividly recounts the horrors of war and offers a grim reminder of the stakes at hand. (The show was originally intended to be performed without an intermission.)
Graham Rowat, as Virginia's Richard Henry Lee, might well steal the show if his character weren't absent from Philadelphia for much of the action. Rowat walks a fine line, keeping the strutting and vain Lee from being a one-dimensional popinjay as he mines comedy from his ode to his lineage, "The Lees of Old Virginia," with help from Huddleston and Cleale. The second act highlight is a tour-de-force performance of the musical's most powerful song by Trent Blanton as South Carolina delegate Edward Rutledge. Blanton cows the colonials with "Molasses to Rum," an impassioned and ultimately chilling defense of slavery as well as an indictment of northern hypocrisy.
Anyone who has seen a production of 1776 knows that the show ends with a brilliant coup de theatre. Resigned to an imperfect revolution and facing a dangerous, uncertain future, the delegates sign the Declaration as bells toll louder and louder. Finally, with their rebellion born, they slowly stiffen into a portrait setting, once again remote and one-dimensional figures from our history. The moment is rich with goose-bump potential and this production does not fail to deliver.
The figures of Jefferson, Adams, and Franklin took to the stage on opening night just as a subdued President Bush was going before television cameras a few blocks away at the White House to order Saddam Hussein out of Iraq and commit the U.S. to war. This concurrence of events certainly added resonance to the experience, as did the characters' painful dealings over slavery. At one point, Adams warns that the retention of slavery in order to obtain the southern states' support of American independence will come back to haunt the new country, and it's especially meaningful to hear this warning in the theater where Abraham Lincoln's life was taken as a final act in support of that "peculiar institution" (Rutledge's words). Ford's Theatre in 2003 may just be the most fitting place and time for 1776.