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The Paper Mill Playhouse presents a Broadway-caliber revival of this stirring and entertaining musical about the creation of the Declaration of Independence. logo
A scene from 1776
(© Gerry Goodstein)
No matter what the current political climate may be, the Peter Stone-Sherman Edwards musical 1776, now being given a Broadway-caliber revival at the Paper Mill Playhouse, provides more than just an entertaining look at the events leading to the Second Continental Congress' signing of the Declaration of Independence on July 4, 1776 in Philadelphia. It is also an intelligent and timeless parable on how to successfully engage in politics through compromise.

Director Gordon Greenberg and his smartly chosen cast have made the show absolutely engrossing, nailing both the humor and the dramatic detail. The one misstep comes from Don Stephenson as (future president) John Adams, the musical's protagonist, who spearheads the movement for the Thirteen Colonies to declare their independence from Great Britain. While his performance is passionate and deeply felt, Stephenson is often so petulant, shrieking, and whiny that he becomes more annoying than the show's creators intended. Still, his rendition of "Is Anybody There?" manages to be despondent, desperate and wanting.

The remainder of the cast is uniformly fantastic. As the show's only two women Kerry O'Malley portrays Abigail Adams with loving sincerity, while Lauren Kennedy is simply smashing as Martha Jefferson, bringing her sex appeal and high belting voice to "He Plays the Violin."

Conrad John Schuck is an authentic, grandfatherly Ben Franklin. Kevin Earley brings a hesitant, pensive quality to "Virginia's most famous lover" Thomas Jefferson, only occasionally breaking out of his shell. Aaron Ramey is a wildly energetic Richard Henry Lee, laughing at his own jokes and slapping his knees without restraint. (At one point in "The Lees of Old Virginia," he even gets down on one knee and pretty much does an Al Jolson impression.) Robert Cuccioli and James Barbour are extremely confident, commanding, and imposing as John Dickinson and Edward Rutledge, the two biggest opponents of independence in the Congress, stopping the show cold with their respective big numbers: "Cool, Considerate Men" and "Molasses to Rum."

Griffin Matthews, a young African-American actor, makes a strong impression as the Courier who shuffles in and out of the Congress to deliver missives from General George Washington. As the battle rages to keep an anti-slavery clause in the Declaration of Independence, Matthews shares a powerful series of glances with Stephenson. He also sings the beautiful ballad "Mama Look Sharp" in a notably scared and truly heartbreaking manner.

Kevin Kupnik's set of a tightly confined Congressional Hall smartly places Adams' table farthest downstage, adding further intimacy between him and the audience. Large shutters that occasionally hide the Congress allow for quick and seamless scene changes. And as is tradition, a large scrim of the Declaration of Independence covers the cast at the very end. It's a fitting finish to a very fine production.

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