San Francisco Theater Review: 1776 (A.C.T.)

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by Patricia Schaefer on September 26, 2013

in Theater-San Francisco / Bay Area


Who would think that a musical featuring a bunch of middle-aged white men talking politics could be fun? But that’s the miracle of Frank Galati’s production of 1776. the rousing revival of the 1969 musical classic currently at A.C.T.  Peter Stone’s witty dialogue and Sherman Edwards’ clever songs depict the discussions and debates leading up to the Continental Congress’s vote for independence against England. 1776’s relevance shines in the midst of our current vexatious wrangling over the politically driven government shutdown. With Congress now locked in intractable disputes, this gloriously engaging production suggests that nothing much has changed when it comes to the frustration, outrage, passion and pique that characterizes party politics in a democracy.

John Adams (John Hickok, left) and Benjamin Franklin (Andrew Boyer) greet Martha Jefferson (Andrea Prestinario) in A.C.T.'s 1776.

John Adams, the explosive but brilliant force behind the independence movement, is handsomely played by John Hickok. Hickok, one of the three leads anchoring this musical, provides a somber, more serious foil for the charismatic Andrew Boyer, who portrays a charmingly gouty Benjamin Franklin. Brandon Dahlquist plays the soft-spoken, sensual and sexually longing Thomas Jefferson, who is separated from his newlywed bride, Martha. Abby Mueller offers a loving portrayal of Adams’ wife, Abigail, but it is the pretty and fresh-voiced Andrea Prestinario who wins your heart as Martha: She is sweet, tuneful, and utterly fetching as Jefferson’s happy, physically gratified young bride.

Edward Rutledge (Jarrod Zimmerman, center) addresses his fellow Continental Congress delagates in in A.C.T.'s 1776.

Yet this truly is a remarkable ensemble piece and all 26 members of the multi-layered cast present a united front of likable, enthusiastic and skillful acting and singing. Ryan Drummond offers a masterful rendition of “The Lees of Old Virginia,” while tenor Zach Kenney delivers the emotionally wrenching ballad “Momma, Look Sharp.”  Jarrod Zimmerman, as representative of the Deep South, delivered the showstopper of the evening in his incendiary and thought-provoking performance of “Molasses to Rum,” a sharp rebuke of the North’s hypocrisy in denouncing the slave trade it profited from. This fervent song introduces the pivotal dramatic moment of the play – the point at which the Northern colonies agree to take the abolishment of slavery off the table and bury the controversial issue in order to secure the votes of the Southern colonies. The rest, as they say, is history.

Brandon Dahlquist (center) as Thomas Jefferson and fellow delegates to the Continental Congress in A.C.T.'s 1776.

Musical director Michael Rice leads the band well, and Peter Amster skillfully directs the minuet-driven choreography. The wigs, stockings and corsets of 18th century colonial dress by Mara Blumenfeld never overwhelm the production by turning it into a costume show, and Galati’s light touch keeps the action fresh, lively, and completely compelling – quite a feat for an old musical about an even older chain of historical events. Adams, Franklin, Jefferson and the rest of the lesser known historical figures come alive in this production and are rendered a humanity, wit and pertinence that comes as a delightful surprise, making this a must-see experience.

photos by Kevin Berne

American Conservatory Theatre
A.C.T.’s Geary Theater
ends on October 6, 2013
for tickets, call 415.749.2228 or visit A.C.T.

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