Just as the revolutionary war musical “1776” led the way to Lin-Manuel Miranda’s much-praised hip-hop opus “Hamilton,” the success of “Hamilton” has inspired a radically rethought production of “1776” at City Center as part of the Encores! series that features a young, racially diverse cast and a modern business suit dress code.
The crowd-pleasing 1969 musical is especially timely right now, given the background of the presidential election and news about members of Congress unwilling to work with each other. In the opening scene, when John Adams regrets that his colleagues refuse to even debate declaring independence from Great Britain, it brings to mind the refusal of many Republicans to consider the nomination of Merrick Garland to the Supreme Court.
Even so, “1776” is an unusual selection for the Encores! series, which is intended to celebrate the scores of rarely-seen musicals by using a full-size orchestra and simplified set design. Although Sherman Edwards’ score is thoroughly winning, “1776” revolves primarily around Peter Stone’s witty, dramatically-charged book. In one scene, more than a half hour of dialogue goes by before a song starts.
Whereas the score and book of “Hamilton” is a mirror image of its multicultural and modern look, “1776” has traditionally been performed by Caucasian actors and with period-style production values. That being said, “1776” works perfectly fine with a diverse cast and modern costumes, not unlike works of Shakespeare that are performed in the same manner.
As staged by Irish director Garry Hynes, this is a lean presentation of the musical that would have been even more effective and fluid had the actors benefited from a longer rehearsal period.
Santino Fontana is unusually likable and photogenic as the “obnoxious and disliked” John Adams, but still captures the character’s fervor and fighting spirit. Other impressive turns among the large ensemble include Christiane Noll’s gutsy Abigail Adams, John Larroquette’s droll Ben Franklin, John Behlmann’s sensitive Thomas Jefferson and Nikki Renee Daniels’ lovely Martha Jefferson.