Signal Ensemble Theatre at Chopin Theatre. Music and lyrics by Sherman Edwards. Book by Peter Stone. Dir. Ronan Marra. With ensemble cast.
Perfect timing. With the increasingly bitter sniping among the Democratic presidential candidates, we start to wonder how this country survives its own government. Along comes Signal’s revival of 1776 to remind us that it ever was so. Stone and Edwards’s retelling of the Continental Congress’s struggle toward the Declaration of Independence bears remarkable historical accuracy for a Broadway musical, but this is no Schoolhouse Rock edutainment. It’s a refresher course in the differences between real history and ninth-grade U.S. history, a reminder that declaring independence was both a radical, not-entirely-popular concept and a decision negotiated by actual, fallible men.
Like a baby grand piano, Marra’s production accomplishes stirring sweep with a small-scale footprint. For the most part, his large cast is terrific—Philip Winston’s John Adams and Jon Steinhagen’s John Dickinson are well-matched enemies, and Vincent Lonergan’s tendency toward mugging works in favor of larger-than-life eccentric Ben Franklin. Marra’s only failing is not reining in Jeremy Trager’s South Carolina delegate Rutledge. Trager has an amazing voice, but as an actor he specializes in creepy intensity, which doesn’t translate well to Southern gentleman. His work here is cringeworthy, strutting like a fop in a Restoration comedy and sporting the worst Southern accent since Julia Roberts in everything. But the praiseworthiness of every other element of this fine production, plus Edwards and Stone’s moving storytelling, leaves us filled with hope for our country. Maybe what this contentious Congress shows us is that, in the greatest historical moments, the audacity of hope takes a village.