It's great to see how funny America's founding fathers can be.

And, no, I'm not talking about "Hamilton" this time. I'm talking about the musical that came 46 years earlier — "1776."

The 1969 musical, rarely produced in the Akron area, is now playing with a 27-member cast of excellent actors and fine singers at Ohio Shakespeare Festival. It's a grand story focused on the months leading up to the signing of the Declaration of Independence, seen through John Adams' struggle to get the Second Continental Congress to agree on anything.

First and foremost, in the hands of director Nancy Cates, this show by Peter Stone and Sherman Edwards has lots of humor. That starts when the wonderful Andrew Cruse's Adams insists that the colonies must vote for independence, and the hot, harried delegates in Philadelphia respond, "John, you're a bore. We've heard this before" in the song "Sit Down, John."

Terry Burgler creates an impishly comical Benjamin Franklin who enjoys helping the stubborn John broker a deal with Congress members. For a number of these delegates, the last thing on their mind seems to be declaring independence from the British: Stephen Hawkins (Daren Kelly) of Rhode Island just wants to drink rum and Thomas Jefferson (Ryan Zarecki) of Virginia can think only of getting home to his new wife.

Adams is portrayed as an agitator who is "obnoxious and disliked." When Adams tells wife Abigail he's pigheaded after the whole southern delegation walks out, she lovingly replies, "I'm afraid you are pigheaded."

The women make the founding fathers seem most human. As Abigail, Lisa Marie Schueller brings great warmth to Adams' wife and confidante, both in their bickering "Till Then" and in the romantic "Yours, Yours, Yours." Tess Burgler adds passion to the story when her Martha Jefferson shows up in Philadelphia for a conjugal visit with her young husband, Thomas.

That feminine love and warmth is a very important part of what makes the title character so real in Lin-Manuel Miranda's musical "Hamilton," and that's not just a coincidence.

Alexander Hamilton isn't a character in "1776" and John Adams doesn't actually appear in "Hamilton." But in a July interview with Playbill, Miranda said, " '1776' certainly paved the way for 'Hamilton' — not just in that it’s about our founders, but also in that it engages fully with their humanity."

In more reflections on both musicals, I'm reminded how Miranda's Hamilton is counseled by his mentor, Washington, on the need to compromise. In "1776," the bristly Adams is counseled by the older, wiser Benjamin Franklin to pass off the proposal for an independence resolution to Richard Henry Lee of Virginia, in order to get the votes.

Both Hamilton and Adams had their enemies. The latter's chief adversary in "1776" is conservative John Dickinson (Joe Pine) of Pennsylvania.

Unfortunately, Ohio Shakespeare's "1776" is sung to a track, which the company also did for "Camelot" for cost reasons. Although the track does have the sounds of the harpsichord and strings, nothing beats live music.

As Edward Rutledge of South Carolina, Jason Leupold is the most gifted singer in this show with his powerful "Molasses to Rum," in which he argues against an anti-slavery provision in the Declaration of Independence. The most memorable, haunting tune in the score is "Momma Look Sharp," a song about young lives lost to battle, sung by young Cameron Zona as the courier.

In contrast, Jeremy Jenkins illuminates the total silliness in Lee's self-congratulatory "The Lees of Old Virginia." And Cruse, Terry Burgler and Zarecki bring plenty of humor to "The Egg" as they sing about the birth of a new nation.

This musical bends some dates and facts for ease of storytelling, including consolidating the final vote, announcement and signing of the Declaration of Independence all on one day, July 4, 1776. In this show, it's striking how many characters DON'T want to assume responsibility in America's quest for independence. That's clearest in "But, Mr. Adams," when four delegates try to pass off the job of chief author of the Declaration of Independence.

Of course, delegates from the 13 colonies rise to the challenge with a unanimous vote for independence. The rest, as they say, is history.

 

Arts writer Kerry Clawson may be reached at 330-996-3527 or kclawson@thebeaconjournal.com. Follow her at @KerryClawsonABJ or www.facebook.com/kclawsonabj.