“1776,” a bit dated yet very timely, gets a patriotic salute at Rivertown Theaters

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WHAT: Rivertown Theaters presents the Tony Award-winning musical about the backstory of the Declaration of Independence. A.J. Allegra directs Sherman Edwards music (book by Peter Stone); starring Gary Rucker, David Hoover, Louis Dudoussat and others.
WHEN: Nov. 4-5, 8 p.m.; Nov. 6, 2 p.m.; through Nov. 20
WHERE: Rivertown Theaters for the Performing Arts, 325 Minor St.
TICKETS: $44 adults, $41.90 seniors, $39.80 students
MORE INFO: www.rivertowntheaters.com

There is something grandiose about Rivertown Theaters’ staging of “1776” that goes beyond the obviously calculated timing of its presentation over the course of this presidential election finale. The musical itself, which debuted in 1969, was an ambitious affair, trying to meld politics, policy and poetry long before Aaron Sorkin broke all the rules with TV’s masterful “The West Wing.”

Much as John Adams tries to help herd the cats that were the nation’s first Congress, director A.J. Allegra must herd a cast of characters that must feel distinct, yes, but also, well, entertaining. But because, nearly 50 years since the musical’s premiere, politics as entertainment has taken on a whole new meaning, anyway, so “1776” becomes a whole other challenge.

And with a few curious exceptions — not necessarily the fault of the production — the musical is a smashing success that should be seen before the glow of this fraught election subsides. Intricate, complicated, uncomfortable but filled with pride, music and respect, “1776” restores your faith in musical theater as something more than just a song-and-dance piece of fluff. It’s a testament to this collaboration, ostensibly, of two of the most talented figures in the greater New Orleans theater scene.

Allegra, as artistic director of The NOLA Project, here is in cahoots with Rivertown’s Gary Rucker, the co-artistic director and, in this case, the star of the show in playing John Adams. I have no idea what kind of collaborative spirit was sparked between the two in the production; maybe Rucker just stuck to the production and acting side and left the directing to Allegra. But the final product does indeed feel like a powerhouse team effort.

It’s difficult to list the strengths of the production without sounding fawning, but here’s a stab at it:

  • The staging alone is worth the price of admission, starting with David Raphael’s set that makes the production look like a grander affair than it is. A series of scrims are swapped out with ease, as an earth-toned setting of Independence Hall quickly gives way to a cobble-stone street and back again, their canvases painted with the utmost care. A bedroom scene is presented as an upstairs setting in the upper back of the stage without losing any intimacy, and each scene is lit with rich, glowing effort that is most effective in the congressional scenes so as to make sure each character is seen as well as heard.
  • Allegra must have combed the expanse of New Orleans’ theater community to assemble the 30 men for this production, and all deliver performances that give each character their own identity. While Rucker as John Adams is clearly the star of the show, giving a commanding performance befitting a founding father and future president. As the smartest man in the room (for better or worse), he deliciously delivers the most famous line: “I have come to the conclusion that one useless man is called a disgrace; that two are called a law firm, and that three or more become a Congress!” Yet Rucker also gives plenty of space for the others to work.
  • There are subtle performances, including Matt Reed as a lovelorn and conflicted Thomas Jefferson, and there are more colorful offerings, especially David Hoover as Cheshire cat-like Benjamin Franklin and Jimmy Murphy as a suave and smug John Dickinson of Pennsylania. If nothing else, you can feel torment and conviction in so many of the characters, including T. Joe Seibert as the perplexed James Wilson and Scott Clausen as the slave-owning Edward Rutledge of South Carolina. (More on that later.) In the two female roles, Nori Pritchard (as Abigail Adams) and Jessica Gordon (Martha Jefferson) make the most of their respective numbers. (More on that later.)
  • Whether in chorus, solos or duets, Sherman Edwards’ musical numbers across the board are a delight to behold. Rucker, while not blesses with the most beautiful singing voice, instead brings a modulated power to his numbers, starting right out with the ensemble number “For God’s Sake, John, Sit Down!” and continuing through with his “Piddle, Twiddle, and Resolve.” Like Congress itself, the show is at its best musically when it all sings in unison, though Clausen stands out in Rutledge’s dark, operatic “Molasses to Rum.” (More on that later.)

“1776” shows Rivertown Theaters at its reputed best. To this point I’d never seen a full-fledged production, but it confirmed all of the positives I’d seen (and edited) in critics’ reviews.

About reviews: One of the basic tenets of criticism is to focus on what a given piece of work is or has as opposed to what it isn’t or doesn’t have, and that tenet should be especially helpful in looking at “1776” and its many dimensions. What it is, by almost critical consensus, is one of the best books in recent musical-theater history. (That might be grading on a gracious curve, given the books often serve as down time between fabulous musical numbers.) It has achieved this status because of the intelligence and care with which it treats its vast and potentially confusing ensemble cast — which is to say, basically, the founding fathers.

Allegra is one of those who’s called Peter Stone’s book as one of the best, and, as Allegra also noted in the radio show version of “PopSmart NOLA” on Saturday (Nov. 5), you come away being able to tell every single member of Congress apart from one another. We know these people onstage just as we know these Americans in our everyday life. Some are intellectuals, some patrician, some elitist, some ideologues, others idealists, others pragmatic, and still others downright scared of change. That’s America, all right.

But America is more diverse than “1776,” and while it’s unfair to criticize Stone for his approach to women and slavery, it has to stick with any contemporary viewer — to the point where you have to concede it’s a dated work. Abigail Adams and Martha Jefferson are treated as two female stereotypes — the doting, prodding but ultimately life wife (Abigail) and the object of desire (Martha). As noted in at least one review, Martha’s big number is basically a “charmless ode” to Thomas Jefferson’s lovemaking in “He Plays the Violin” — as she’s situated in between the fawning Franklin and Adams. Abigail communicates with John in a series of letters — presented flatly onstage, with both husband and wife facing the audience and in front of a white canvas.

[Read more: A.J. Allegra’s Top 5 political-themed musicals]

The numbers themselves are beautiful, musically speaking, especially “Yours, Yours, Yours,” which includes this romantic exchange:

Abigail: “Write to me with sentimental effusion / Let me revel in romantic illusion”
John: “Do you still smell of vanilla and spring air? / And is my favorite lover’s pillar still firm and fair?”
Abigail: “What was there, John, still is there, John / Come soon as you can to my cloister / I’ve forgotten the feel of your hand”
Adams: “Madam we shall walk in Cupid’s Grove together”

Otherwise, Abigail feels lightly sketched. But then we now have David McCullough’s massive biography “John Adams” and its HBO adaptation to flesh out Abigail more fully, so there’s that.

Slavery becomes more problematic in “1776.” It is, clearly, one of the obstacles to the Continental Congress coming to a consensus on independence, but it doesn’t hang over the story as ominously as you might think. (Check out this TCM.com take.) Only when Rutledge delivers the sharp-tongued harangue of Yankee hypocrisy in “Molasses to Rum” do we properly feel the weight of slavery in the Declaration of Independence. (Digression: Scott Clausen is near brilliant in this number, delivering the song in a rich, seething baritone, made all the more powerful underneath Melissa Martinez’s lighting. Soaking it in, I thought, this is as uncomfortably beautiful a song as “Tomorrow Belongs to Me” from “Cabaret.”)

As the Continental Congress comes to its ultimate compromise — removing the opposition to slavery in the text to appease the Southern states and guaranteeing a near-century delay in its abolition — contemporary viewers can’t help but wonder if it should feel more than a mere rationalization. Couldn’t there be more weight, more pain, placed in the moment?

This might be where someone might suggest that “1776” labors under the shadow of the wildly popular, Tony Award-winning “Hamilton,” with is reverse-color casting and hip-hop groove. Maybe. In Ben Brantley’s aforementioned New York Times review, a recent remount of “1776” includes an ethnically mixed cast to at least suggest some diversity — although it’s done, Brantley notes, “to occasionally jarring effect.”

So what’s a director to do when it comes to one-dimensional female characters and a seemingly rationalized resolution to major dilemma? It’s difficult for me to say. I speak not so much as a critic but simply an audience member that, watching it, it just felt, I dunno, weird. What does appear evident is that the creative team places its faith in Stone’s book, nicely modulated emotional performances and, of course, the music to compensate for these missteps.

[Learn more: Red Ted Mahne’s excellent review in NOLA.com | The Times-Picayune]

One thing is certain, especially in light of this presidential election cycle: “1776” confirms that democracy is a messy, ugly business. Kudos to Rivertown Theaters to find, and deliver, its beauty. If there’s any relevance to today’s election, it’s that compromise and sacrifice matter.

In some ways, the show reminds me of a musical version of my favorite ensemble work, “12 Angry Men,” and oppressive heat and claustrophobia are recurring themes in both shows. These are men who are as stuck with one another as they seem different from one another, and they both must find unanimity — through all their differences — to make the right decision. It’s in the spirit of cooperation, and being able to step outside one’s own interests for the greater good, that make both the process work. In democracy, and in theater, it takes one helluva group effort. “1776” is certainly that.

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