Oh, well. The first five minutes were promising.
Encores’ revival of 1776 began with Santino Fontana (playing John Adams) standing at the edge of the stage, joking about lawyers and politicians. The audience, clearly primed in this crazy election year, cheered (and continued to through the show). Fontana is a delightful, charismatic actor with superb timing; his natural charm shines through the character’ irascibility, which makes him a perfect musical comedy Adams. Director Garry Hynes’ spare production featured a mixed race cast in modern dress – clearly a nod to Hamilton, but it felt appropriate and refreshing here, too. As the stage filled with members of the Second Continental Congress, there was some liveliness, and a glimmer of positive expectation.
And then — freefall. Despite the best efforts of Hynes, Fontana, and a strong ensemble that notably included Andre De Shields, John Larroquette, Christiane Noll, and Alexander Gemignani — 1776 proved unresurrectable. Frankly, I can’t remember two hours and forty minutes in a theater that passed more slowly.
The production isn’t the problem — it’s the show. Just a few of its many inadequacies, any one of which could kill it — there’s not a single memorable song (not the music, not the lyrics). More strangely, these songs seem inserted almost at random; there’s hardly ever a sense that the creators have found the right pulse beat to punctuate with a number. Then there’s the infamous stretch, early in the first act, of nearly 30 minutes without any music at all. It’s a busy scene that establishes a number of characters, and sets up the voting procedures; the inescapable conclusion is that it was simply too complicated for this team to find a way to score — but the show loses momentum and never recovers.
You might well imagine that 1776 is the product of a group of neophyte writers, and you’d be half-right. Music and lyrics are by Sherman Edwards, whose previous experience is almost entirely as a songwriter of a few minor hits (“Johnny Got Angry” for Joanie Sommers). But nothing can explain how the estimable Peter Stone could deliver such a sodden book. Stone’s screenplay for Charade is a model of effervescent wit — in 1776, a few moldy jokes are repeated ad nauseam.
1776 proved a greater tribute to Hamilton than Encores could have anticipated. In scene after scene, the comparison was inescapable, and one could only marvel at the differences — how Lin-Manuel Miranda launches both book and score with clarity, wit and forward momentum that continues throughout; that his lyrics are a model of cleverness but also heart; and how no scene, no matter how detailed and wide-ranging, is beyond his musical abilities.
But at Encores, it was, alas, a different story. Here, in the original Room Where It Happens, nothing interesting happened.