After the Declaration of Independence was signed in 1776, John Adams proposed that the birth of America should be celebrated with "parades, bells, bonfires and illuminations [fireworks]." It might be nitpicking to point out that Adams expected those celebrations to occur on July 2 rather than July 4, and that he did not include theater on his list of recommended revelries. But in June and July, as temperatures hover in the 90s, a stirring production of the musical play 1776 is better than a bonfire.
This year there's a crackerjack staging at the historic Lyceum Theatre in tranquil Arrow Rock (population 70), a two-and-a-half hour drive from St. Louis, a few miles west of Columbia. The Lyceum has been mounting plays every summer since 1961. But what began more than four decades ago as a community summer stock operation has evolved into much more than that. The sheer professionalism of this vibrant 1776 preoccupies the viewer from beginning to end. Have you already seen the movie umpteen times? Not to worry. There's a freshness here that makes you feel as if you're watching the show for the first time.
Consider Whit Reichert, for instance. Reichert, who has long been one of our area's most popular actors both on and off the stage, surely was born to play Benjamin Franklin. But this is the first time Reichert has appeared as the savant from Pennsylvania in 1776. Not only is he deliciously droll in the role, but it's clear that Reichert is savoring every minute.
The show is studded with notable performances. As the volatile Adams, that "incendiary little man" from Massachusetts who practically willed the Declaration into existence, Chip Phillips renders a persuasively intense portrayal. When Phillips is not driving the action forward, David Girolmo's John Hancock is. Girolmo, a Chicago-based actor, transforms the president of the second Continental Congress into a commanding and sympathetic role. Alan Knoll has fun with Stephen Hopkins, the rum-soaked delegate from Rhode Island, Adam Henry brings appealing youth to that "redheaded tombstone" Thomas Jefferson and John Contini breathes life into Congressional clerk Charles Thomson. It's bad enough that Thomson is the most thankless character in the script; he often tends to be played with an irritatingly squeaky, pinch-nosed voice. None of that for Contini, for which we can all give thanks.
So many solid performances remind us that 1776, despite its surprising success, remains a highly unconventional musical. The script by Peter Stone contains long scenes without any songs at all. Nor are any of composer Sherman Edwards' melodies going to find much of a life outside the theater. The cast is composed almost completely of character actors. There are only two women and no dancers. Yet 1776's own declaration of independence from the Broadway norm is its saving grace.
Dunsi Dai has bestowed an intriguing symmetry on his crisp, efficient scene design for Independence Hall. The Lyceum stage is crammed with stools, benches and chairs, yet under the direction of Quin Gresham the action moves smoothly, almost urgently, to its finale. When, as the plot neared its emotional climax, the woman sitting next to me whispered to her husband, "I think I'm going to cry," the comment was a fitting benediction for everyone involved. To encounter a musical this well done, especially in a locale as remote as Arrow Rock, exceeds all expectations.