Before there was “Hamilton,” there was “1776.” The musical about the signing of the Declaration of Independence, with music and lyrics by Sherman Edwards and a book by Peter Stone, premiered in 1969 at the 46th Street Theatre (now the Richard Rodgers Theatre, where “Hamilton” makes its home).
Now, Palm Beach Dramaworks is revisiting the Tony Award-winning musical — which was made into a film in 1972 — and the production is so lively, so funny, so entertaining, so painfully relevant, seeing it is well worth the long drive north.
Ingeniously staged by director Clive Cholerton, this “1776” opens with a nod to the present (fitting, because the characters repeat just about every bad thing you have ever said about Congress). Images of candidates and other ephemera from our 240-year American history are projected above the stage, a pointed reminder that our current brand of political cacophony and chaos is not unprecedented. The cast, first appearing in modern-day costume, sheds the contemporary garb for periodwear and ushers us into the chamber of the Continental Congress, where John Adams (the terrific Gary Cadwallader, Dramaworks’ director of education and community engagement) is demanding a vote for independence, and just about everybody else is telling him to shut up.
The first half of the play deals with Adams’ relentless attempts to secure votes for independence with help from such allies as Benjamin Franklin (Allan Baker), Thomas Jefferson (Clay Cartland) and Richard Henry Lee (Nicholas Richberg, whose exuberant “The Lees of Old Virginia” is one of the highlights of the show). The tone is bright and funny, with lots of jokes at the expense of congressional waffling, Adams’ bossy disposition (he may be obnoxious and disliked, but you’re going to love him) and foul, fetid, fuming, foggy, filthy Philadelphia itself.
As Congress bickers and debates, Cholerton keeps the set (designed by Michael Amico) in motion. He also deftly navigates the hurdle of having actors play dual roles (Richberg, for example, also plays John Dickinson of Pennsylvania, Adams’ primary foe, and Cartland doubles as Dr. Lyman Hall of Georgia, whose change of heart will prove important), with help from costume designer Brian O’Keefe. The show is also happily gender-blind: The excellent Laura Hodos, GableStage’s Candida in its recent “A Minister’s Wife,” doubles as Abigail Adams and John Hancock.
The second half of “1776” grows more serious as the issue of slavery must be confronted. Shane R. Tanner, as South Carolina’s Edward Rutledge, delivers a scorching version of “Molasses to Rum,” in which he lays out the North’s complicity in the slave trade. When the controversial phrase about slavery is ultimately stricken from Jefferson’s declaration, Adams tells Franklin, “Posterity will never forgive us.” Suddenly this old-fashioned musical feels dismayingly real, reminding us with its subdued closing that history has its eyes on us all.
If you go
What: ‘1776,’ music and lyrics by Sherman Edwards and a book by Peter Stone
Where: Palm Beach Dramaworks, 201 Clematis St., West Palm Beach
When: Wednesday through Sunday. 8 p.m. Wednesday-Saturday; 2 p.m. matinees Wednesday, Saturday and Sunday.
Tickets: $65 ($10 for students, subject to availability). 561-514-4042 or PalmBeachDramaworks.org