LETTERS TO EDITOR
BOOKS and CDs
Reprise! Broadway's Best 1776
by Laura Hitchcock
Reprise! Broadway's Best launches its fifth season of classic musicals at UCLA's Freud Playhouse with 1776, a page torn from an archetypal event in American history, the creation and signing of the Declaration of Independence. Producing Artistic Director Marcia Seligson, inspired by the New York Encores! Series, gives us everything but dance numbers, sets and big stage effects. Peter Matz directs a full orchestra, Scott A. Lane has designed flawless period costumes, and Kay Cole has choreographed a very few dance steps among a very few people under the astute direction of Gordon Hunt.
The 1969 Tony-winner was created by Sherman Edwards who composed lyrics and music that manage to catch the period superbly while expressing the humor and pace that makes the piece resonate with today's audiences. Peter Stone's witty elegant book further humanizes the Founding Fathers and their dilemmas. The first act has too much book and not enough music but the second act strikes a fine balance and powerfully embodies the conflicts that almost divided the house. Most dramatic is the slavery issue exemplified in the song "Molasses To Rum", in which South Carolina Senator Edward Rutledge accuses the New England pro-Independence senators of benefiting as much from the shipping end of the triangle slave trade as the southern Royalists do from their plantations. When the nay-saying Pennsylvania senator John Dickinson passes a resolution calling for a unanimous decision on Independence, the stage is set for passionate politicking against the backdrop of desperate messages from General George Washington whose small ragged army fights the American Revolution against overwhelming odds. The messages are brought by a young courier whose poignant ballad "Momma Look Sharp "about finding his two best friends slain on a village green puts Independence in perspective.
The cast is headed by Orson Bean as a wise, witty, womanizing Ben Franklin and Roger Rees as the unpopular firebrand John Adams. Though Rees's voice is of the Rex Harrison and Richard Burton brand, he can sell a song. Kevin Earley more than sells the 11 o'clock number "Molasses to Rum. " Thomas Ian Griffith as Jefferson, John Scherer as Richard Henry Lee, Bets Malone as Martha Jefferson and Marcia Mitzman Gaven bring fine voices to parts that are little more than sketches. Nicholas Hormann turns in an arresting low-key performance as Dr. Lyman Hall, a sane and searching Southerner whose solid sense of values provides a pivotal fulcrum, and Chad Brannon portrays the weary dusty courier.and makes the evening's most heartbreaking moment singing "Momma Look Sharp."
1776 is always a viable history lesson with unexpectedly accurate music and, to those new to Reprise!, the production values are a welcome surprise.