Rock Out With Your John Hancock Out: Franklin and Sherman totally wig.
Rock Out With Your John Hancock Out: Franklin and Sherman totally wig.

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If you were running a small and modestly endowed theater company, would you go staging a founding-of-America musical that requires 25 performers and almost as many powdered wigs? More to the point, would you stage it in Washington—where just a few years ago, as a fractious nation girded itself for war, an expensively upholstered Ford’s Theatre production made a startlingly relevant success out of it?

The Keegan Theatre has done just that, returning to 1776 just four years after Ford’s revived the Vietnam-era musical about a faction-riven Congress and the compromises and human costs it’s forced to confront on the way to an unappetizing conflict. (There must be something in the air: Ford’s is said to be considering a revival, as well, and there are rumors of a production at another mid-size area house.)

And let’s face it: The show’s remarkably good at sketching out, in efficiently witty songs and brisk if occasionally expositional dialogue, how personal and individual concerns (one legislator’s cancer, another lawmaker’s property holdings) influence the broader course of politicking and policymaking. It’s not like these things change.

Mark Rhea’s staging sounds nice enough when the legislators are harmonizing—the score does handsome things with the glee-clubby possibilities of a mostly male vocal blend—and sometimes even when one of those squabbling legislators steps to the fore to pontificate in song. Chris Borton, as New York’s forever-abstaining Rep. Livingston, has a nice, bright singing voice, and AJ Ackleson’s threadbare military courier brings things to a still, stirring emotional climax, as he should, with the mournful “Mama, Look Sharp.”

Robert Leembruggen’s plummy, funny Ben Franklin provides a few more bright spots, but then he comes pre-supplied with all the best aphorisms. Not that book writer Peter Stone is above inventing a few: “Revolutions come into this world like bastard children,” his Franklin cracks, “half improvised and half compromised.”

But there’s not much shape to the constantly reprised duets for Rhea’s nasally John Adams (Mick Tinder) and his patient wife Abigail (Patricia Tinder); “Molasses to Rum,” the powerhouse 11 o’clock number in which South Carolina’s representative calls the moralizing Yankees on their slave-trade complicity, comes off less as chilling realpolitik than petulant grandstanding.

The canned orchestrations sound, well, canned, not to mention unattractively rigid, tempo-wise; the design, meanwhile, seems haphazard—you won’t notice the onstage murk until a character mentions that it’s afternoon—and the direction unfocused. Bits of dialogue get mumbled, and arguments get lost in the iffy acoustics of the Church Street Theater.

In fact, the show loses most of its energy, curiously enough, when the Continental Congress is in full squabble, which is a good bit of the time. Chalk it up to the difficulty of finding two dozen actors who can handle both melody and rhetoric—and who’re willing to work cheap.