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Stage Review : '1776' Loses Some Glory

September 18, 1987|MARK CHALON SMITH

It feels almost like an act of sedition to knock Laguna Moulton Playhouse's Old Glory-cloaked "1776," especially when the show is being touted as a celebration of America and the Constitution's 200th birthday.

The temptation is to let a spirit of patriotism wash away any doubts and silence any crabbing--to just relax and enjoy the musical fireworks as Thomas Jefferson, Ben Franklin and John Adams dramatize the country's founding.

Actually, it's not so hard to give in. Directors Douglas Rowe and Mark Turnbull have made Peter Stone's and Sherman Edwards' 1969 Tony Award-winner vivid and big-bodied, from Doug and Don Williamson's authentic-looking set of the Continental Congress chambers--where the Declaration of Independence is forged in an atmosphere of haggling and speech-making--to the giant twin flags that unfurl dramatically at the show's climax.

But look past the lush red-white-and-blue veneer, and the weaknesses become apparent. The trouble ranges from the trivialization of the heroic characters to the uneven singing of most of the cast. The raggedness puts this well-meaning, heartfelt production out of pitch, resulting in a tribute that ultimately falls flat.

"1776" is an attempt to make history entertaining and, perhaps more important, to demystify the country's founding fathers, presenting them as basically ordinary men who rose to the challenges of extraordinary times.

Fine on paper, perhaps. But at Laguna Moulton, despite Nils Anderson's efforts to make him appear passionate and committed, John Adams comes across as crotchety and self involved, more a talkative and somewhat annoying curiosity than a world-beating firebrand. And as played by Harper Roisman, Ben Franklin is little more than a randy, wisecracking sidekick. Jeffrey Schlicter's Thomas Jefferson is even more disturbing, a lovesick, almost weak-willed farmer who appears to have stumbled into Congress by accident. The musical numbers, though, are the biggest disappointments. There just aren't enough accomplished singers (Carolyn Miller as the supportive, wry Abigail Adams is one of the exceptions) to give the songs their due.

Fortunately, "1776" is as much drama as musical. There are some involving congressional scenes in which the statesmen aggressively debate everything from whether to open the windows on a hot day to the politics of including a denunciation of slavery in the Declaration (it was excised to ensure the South's support for independence). These moments are the show's best--sharply acted, intriguing and even funny, providing insight into the period.

"1776" A Laguna Moulton Playhouse production. Music and lyrics by Sherman Edwards. Book by Peter Stone. Directed by Douglas Rowe and Mark Turnbull. With Nils Anderson, Harper Roisman, Jeffrey Schlicter, Jerry Newman, Carolyn Miller, Dana McClary, Eric Anderson and John Huntington. Sets by Doug and Don Williamson. Costumes by Marthella Randall. Lighting by Kathy Pryzgoda. Choreography by Tim Dey. Plays Tuesday through Saturday at 8 p.m., with 2:30 p.m. matinees Sundays through Oct. 4. Tickets: $14-$16. Laguna Moulton Playhouse, 606 Laguna Canyon Road, Laguna Beach. (714) 494-8021 or 494-0743.

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