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Keeping their wigs on straight: the cast of NYSTI’s 1776

History Under Glass
By James Yeara

1776

Book by Peter Stone, music and lyrics by Sherman Edwards, directed by Ron Holgate

New York State Theatre Institute, through Feb. 11

>From the opening song, “Sit Down John,” a battle between John Adams (Gary Lynch) and the other delegates to the Second Continental Congress, through the closing tableau of the signing of the Declaration of Independence and the tolling of the Liberty Bell, the Tony Award-winning 1776 makes you proud to be an American. 1776 reminds us that we were once the underdogs: We were the rebels against tyranny, fighting those who tortured, denied the right to trial and counsel, taxed without representation, and valued money more than morals.

1776 is a play so resonant, so honest and so engaging that it is a must-see musical, especially in times when some have forgotten what it means to be an American. Given the current cultural climate, when it is easy to be infected by Samuel Johnson’s statement seemingly foreseeing the rise of the neocons, “patriotism is the last refuge of the scoundrel,” 1776 offers the antidote. In tracing the four weeks up to the signing of the Declaration of Independence in Philadelphia, 1776 resonates with honesty, feeling, and rousing pride in the truest American right, the inalienable right to protest against wrongs.

1776 isn’t patriotic pabulum or a slap-dash panache on the demi-godhood of the Founding Fathers: A good production of 1776 shows John Adams, Ben Franklin (yet another warm characterization by Joel Aeroste) and Thomas Jefferson as mere mortals who drink, get horny, argue, compromise and strive. A good production will equally show the two wives, Abigail Adams and Martha Jefferson, to be as human as their husbands, motivating their men and having desires of their own. The duet of “Yours, Yours, Yours” between Adams and Abigail and “He Plays the Violin” by Martha, Adams and Franklin should underscore their humanity.

Humanizing the founders isn’t the through line of 1776, however; the wheeling, dealing and stalling of the delegates is. The extraordinary efforts of those few who wanted to break with England and the moneyed many who wanted to keep the privileged status quo make for engrossing and relevant theater. The bare 13 songs of 1776 fit seamlessly into the central conflict: Will the 13 colonies unanimously sign what became known as the Declaration of Independence? The political maneuvering of the delegates fascinates as the motion upon motion is made, debated, voted on, and the colonies move from “Nay” to “Yea” on the huge wooden tally board upstage center. The biggest laughs in the show come from the New York delagate’s tendency to “abstain . . . courteously.” As the delegate, Robert Livingston (appropriately played with unctuous feebleness by Alex Pavone), says: “Have you ever been present at a meeting of the New York Legislature? Nothing ever gets done.” Two hundred years as a valid punch line is something not even Joe Bruno can take sole credit for. It’s nice to see that even in a theater as rife with politicking as the New York State Theatre Institute, the state Legislature still can be the butt of humor.

While the musical is full of the spirit of contention, director Ron Holgate, Tony Award winner for his portrayal of Richard Henry Lee in the original 1969 Broadway production, gives NYSTI’s production a grand, stately air and pace with an almost three-hour running time. With a Disney Hall of Presidents opulence and exactness of movement and costume, this 1776 forsakes the “stripped for action” boldness of NYSTI’s recent “concert series” productions in favor of a more traditional approach. This is a show that is well-blocked, well-lighted, and well-played by its four-piece synthesizer band; it is well-enunciated, well-costumed, and well-wigged. Unfortunately, it has a Loyalists’ sensibility, as if the Founding Fathers never sweated, never doubted, never had a human moment and never made a misstep. Less rebellious and more robotic, NYSTI presents 1776 with all the verve and pomp of a coronation, or C-SPAN with wigs.

Have a Nice Day

8-Track: The Sounds of the 70s

Conceived and Directed by Rick Seeber

Capital Repertory Theatre, through Feb. 18

Having actually owned a K-Tel greatest hits collection on 8-track tape back in the early-’70s (I think the Hues Corporation’s “Rock the Boat” was on it, though that tune is not in this show), I can fairly judge that the revue 8 Track: The Sounds of the 70s, currently at Capital Repertory Theatre, nicely reproduces the quintessential K-Tel experience of an endless loop of pop-music cheerfulness. There is one glaring omission, however: Entrepreneur/director Rick Seeber didn’t think to find a way to reproduce that jarring “click” that often came in the middle of a song when the tape player would switch from program to program. (If you don’t know what the hell that means, look up “8 track cartridge” on Wikipedia.)

The set up is simple: Four performers, in early-’70s period costumes, sing the hits of the early-to-middle period of the decade for an hour. Then, after intermission, it’s disco time, with 30 breakneck minutes of the glorious weirdness that was popular music—and, judging by the costumes, fashion—at the end of the ’70s.

The songs go by quickly (and, like the orange-creamsicle-esque vodka drink available at Capital Rep’s bar, go down easily). These include “Afternoon Delight,” “Brick House,” “Car Wash,” “Close to You,” “You Light Up My Life,” and, in a wonderfully absurd moment, a strobe-light freak-out set to the cantata music from Star Wars and bits of “Bohemian Rhapsody.” Another great moment was the “Convoy”/”Fifty Ways to Leave Your Lover” medley; since I tend to see Paul Simon as an annoying English lit-twit, having his song paired with C.W. McCall’s C.B.-radio ode was hugely enjoyable.

A couple of things became obvious while enjoying this hit parade. One, Edwin Starr’s “War” is as dumb as Tony Orlando’s “Tie a Yellow Ribbon.” Two, it’s hard to believe that the latter was the source of the whole yellow-ribbon phenomenon.

All four performers—Liana Young, Tonya Phillips, Teddey Brown and Nik Rocklin—are engaging. Young is the most compelling singer, while Brown—who croons “Alone Again (Naturally)” to a Pet Rock—is the most assertive scene-stealer.

If there is any problem, it is a lack of edginess; 8-Track could use the theatrical equivalent of that jarring “click.” In its own way, the 1970s were as turbulent as the more famous decade that preceded it, and this doesn’t exactly come across in 8-Track. But as carefully constructed nostalgia, it is a breezy, entertaining show, and a hell of a lot more fun than just listening to an oldies station.

—Shawn Stone


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